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Throughout the years, lean leaders have become experts at improving processes. But in most cases, that’s only a half-step. True lean leadership involves coaching and training your people so the improved process doesn’t slip back from the ideal state, and the plan-do-check-act cycle is a remarkable tool for teaching.
26 Industrial Management
people improves
the process
january/february 2016 27
The Toyota Way is held up by two main pillars:
Continuous improvement and respect for people.
And the good industrial manager knows that
respect for people, which is about coaching, devel-
oping, supporting and valuing the workforce, is the
foundation of continuous improvement.
Actually, people are more important than the
process, and companies that put process before people
will not earn sustainable results. People are the ones
who build, operate, modify and improve the process,
so developing people should be your company’s
highest priority. Focusing only on the process often
will lead to system failure.
Early on, Taiichi Ohno, co-developer of the Toyota
Production System, refused to document or write
the system down for fear that people would focus
narrowly on the tools and the theories. When he
finally wrote it down, it was presented as a house
because a house is a system. If you take away any
of the structures that hold up the roof, the roof and
entire system will collapse. One of Ohno’s students
said Toyota made a mistake calling it the Toyota
Production System. Instead, Toyota should have called
it the Thinking Production System because the real
point was to make people think, and people are the
value of the system.
Leadership: Lean vs. the classic approach
Unfortunately, while many companies say that they
value their people, they actually focus more on the
process when using methodologies such as lean or
Six Sigma. To develop a culture of improvement, you
have to coach and develop your people continuously to
change their habits, making improvement a routine.
In a classic management environment, managers
who don’t get results put pressure on their employees
and push improvements. They are seeking quick
results and short-term financial gain, not the
long-term viable health of the organization. In bureau-
cratic management, managers take targets from the
top and cascade them down to their workers, contin-
ually evaluating people using metrics. The ones who
get the results are rewarded. The ones who fail might
be punished.
Such leaders often are working to a financial plan,
with the only care being climbing ladders rapidly and
getting results at any cost. This is the classic method
of managing people. Such leaders often are separated
from the reality of work because they don’t take gemba
walks to figure out what is really happening on the
front lines.
On the other hand, the lean leader takes the target,
breaks it down into manageable pieces and goes to
the gemba to train, develop, improve and apply the
Throughout the years, lean leaders have
become experts at improving processes.
But in most cases, that’s only a half step.
True lean leadership involves coaching and
training your people so the improved process
doesn’t slip back from the ideal state, and
the plan-do-check-act cycle is a remarkable
tool for teaching.
28 Industrial Management
method. This leader works horizontally
to align the effort, method and plan
across different functional departments
with the company’s business goal. This
leader is seeking sustainable results. He
works with people to solve problems.
He goes to the gemba to learn deeply,
develop himself and help others to
learn and see. This leader is seeking the
right process to get the right results
by developing people through process
In the bureaucratic management
system, people tend to hide their
problems for fear of being blamed. This
creates a dysfunctional culture unlike
lean, which encourages problems to
surface so they can be solved. Unfor-
tunately, bad management habits will
develop a negative culture that will
continue to prevent organizational
Toyota uses improvement kata to
develop a routine that will ingrain
systematic continuous improvement
into all processes. And Toyota uses the
coaching kata to coach people on the
continuous improvement process so
they are capable of meeting the targets
and facing the challenge. The early stages
of the improvement kata should be
practiced under the watching eye of the
mentor. So what makes good leaders?
Committing to self-development
Toyota hires people who are committed
to self-development and openness to
change. You simply can’t force people to
learn if they don’t want to. You can force
them to take notes and give feedback,
but psychological experiments have
proven that such learning will remain at
a superficial level.
If only a few people in your system
know how to solve problems, one of
them leaving will disrupt the whole
system. So your organizational target
should be that everyone must learn and
act. A company is strong because of its
people, not its processes. And you have
to standardize the learning process so it
becomes a routine.
While people who are doing the
work should be trained to improve
is important
when trying
to solve large
problems that
cross different
the process, real change always comes
from the top. For example, examine
the New United Motor Manufacturing
Inc.’s NUMMI plant, the first joint
venture between General Motors and
Toyota. The initial aim of the Japanese
was to train plant manager Gary L.
Convis. Convis was in the most critical
position. Training him was the key to
then training everybody in the hierarchy.
From there, training could move down
to team leaders.
While teaching comes from the top to
bottom, a company’s decision-makers
are the ones who can transform the
organization. So ideally they would learn
first. Of course, depending on where
you are in your corporate hierarchy,
it could be difficult to persuade top
management to visit the gemba regularly
and get involved directly in the system’s
continuous improvement. If that’s
the case, training can start with the
middle managers, the supervisors and
workers who can select a small project
to improve. Hopefully, early successes
will convince top management of the
importance of continuous improvement
Learning to lead at the gemba
Few leaders go the gemba regularly.
Some visit only when there is a problem.
Others practice daily walks to observe
people. To be a truly great leader, you
have to learn how to lead at the gemba.
Gemba is the place where the value
creating work happens. The real value
from these visits comes from observing
the actual situation at the processes,
providing the needed support for the
working teams, realizing what the
actual situation is, making decisions
based on facts instead of reported
metrics, finding the root causes of
the problems, improving the process,
coaching people and improving peoples
safety and morale. Every lean tool that
creates value and eliminates waste, from
work standardization to value stream
mapping, should be planned, applied,
improved, adapted and standardized at
the gemba. Gemba walks should be one
of the main core values for any company
that wants to develop good lean leaders.
When Toyota hires new managers
or leaders, they are expected to spend
enough time at the gemba to understand
the process and gain the trust of the
people. In other companies, time spent
at the gemba varies.
For example, when Convis was asked
to leave the NUMMI plant and become
president of Toyota’s Kentucky plant
(He was the first American to become
president of that plant.), Toyota told
him that he would first have to learn the
culture, get involved in the work and get
his hands dirty to prove he could handle
becoming president. He was to go to the
gemba to learn the jobs, understand the
people and understand Toyota. Convis
had a year to accomplish this. In most
corporate cultures outside of the Toyota
group of companies, it is unusual for a
president to spend so much time at the
Japanese culture believes in what
they call t-leadership, where you
should become an expert in a particular
technical area before moving to the next
level. You have to know what people are
doing before you can lead them. When
you become expert in something, you
can start learning the basics of other
As Jeffrey K. Liker, author of The
Toyota Way to Lean Leadership, explained,
Toyota develops t-leaders by moving
those with high potential first up the
chain of command in their specialty.
Then such leaders can move horizon-
tally to different specialties. This also
teaches leaders to manage vertically and
Leading horizontally across organi-
zations is important when trying to
solve large problems that cross different
functional departments.
In far too many industrial organiza-
tions, CEOs have no idea about the
many different operations that include
the supply chain, production, quality
and the culture of improvement. How
do you expect to manage an organi-
zation when you don’t understand the
processes? Such managers cannot solve
problems across different functional
january/february 2016 29
departments if they have never been at
the gemba in those departments.
Learning by teaching
and developing others
Companies are made of people, and
people are not perfect. So continu-
ously developing leaders is the key for
perfection, which should be an ultimate
goal. When Toyota develops a leader,
that leader is expected to become a
teacher and develop another leader. It
is fundamentally a coaching cycle and a
one-to-one coaching method.
For leaders to become coaches,
they must be able to assess the trainee
skills objectively and find the gap
between the skills the trainee has and
the skills the trainee needs. Discover
the trainee’s strengths and weaknesses
and then begin coaching. Avoid giving
detailed instructions or pointing out
the solution. Instead, as Mike Rother
presented in Toyota Kata, ask questions
to observe how the mentee is thinking.
Leadership development is a
practical, problem-solving process. Any
classroom time should be short, brief
and only for the purpose of providing
an awareness level. Classrooms don’t
lead to culture change, but training
leaders at the gemba will. Mentees will
only learn by doing, and they must
practice on a real project. The shu ha ri
model of learning detailed below is a
good starting routine.
The leader must build trust with the
student. If you aren’t trusted as a mentor
and coach, I won’t follow your lessons.
In Japan, as Liker explained in Devel-
oping Lean Leaders at All Levels, the master
rarely praises the student. However,
such a culture didn’t work very well
with Americans in the Toyota plants.
Therefore, Liker wrote, the Japanese
concluded that every criticism should
include three things that are positive.
The lesson here is that you can’t coach
everyone and every culture the same
way. Your coaching model must adapt.
But the principles are always the same.
Critical feedback can be important
because without it, mentees won’t know
what to learn to improve for the next
don’t lead to
culture change,
but training
leaders at the
gemba will.
time. Yet a cascade of positive comments
might lead the trainees to think that they
are the best and need to learn nothing.
Shu ha ri is a model of learning that
comes from the martial arts. It was
presented by Liker and Convis in their
The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership.
Shu means to protect, and in this
phase, students are being coached on
the fundamentals under the eye of
the master. Students must embrace
the routine and copy exactly what the
master is telling them. There is no
deviation accepted.
Ha means to break away, and in this
phase, after the student has learned
these routines and the basics have
become natural, the student has more
freedom to practice unsupervised and
diverge from these rules. The master
may check on the student, who can
apply the rules creatively but still must
follow the standard rigidly.
Ri means freedom, and in this phase,
rules and behaviors have become so
ingrained that the student no longer
thinks about them consciously. Students
then are in the position to develop their
own understanding. The student is
working beyond the rules.
Think about the work standard. A
worker has to learn how to assemble
parts on-site following the standard
work procedures strictly. The student
will learn by doing. In the shu stage, the
student will see how the work is done
and try to follow the teacher. The worker
will practice the job continuously until
he or she reaches the second step, ha.
The teacher will keep monitoring the
student until he or she reaches the final
stage, ri. At that point, the worker can
observe the overall working procedures
and take the responsibility to improve it.
Turning PDCA into
a learning cycle
Mistakenly, many people think plan-
do-check-act (PDCA) is a continuous
improvement cycle, even if they neglect
the human part. PDCA does aim to
improve the process, but if you have only
improved the process without devel-
oping and teaching your people, you
have put the process at risk of slipping
People must be trained in the culture
of continuous improvement so they can
keep managing the process with the new
method. PDCA is actually a remarkable
learning cycle because people learn by
doing. The best thing is to pick a real
project and start improving a process.
You don’t learn to play football by
watching the coach or golf by watching
a match. You have to practice under the
watchful eye of the mentor to develop
new habits and change the bad ones. An
attentive coach is critical to helping you
make a new method become routine.
Toyota has several steps in its
problem-solving process, steps that
cycle through the famous PDCA wheel.
1. Define the problem relative to the
ideal (plan).
2. Grasp the current situation.
3. Break down the problem into
manageable pieces (plan).
4. Find the root cause of the problem
5. Develop countermeasures (plan).
6. Implement the solution (do).
7. Examine what the actual outcomes are
8. Adapt, adjust, standardize and scale
the solutions to other areas (act).
Note that the plan phase is invoked
five times before proceeding to the do
phase. This is to ensure both the quality
of the implementation and that the
selected countermeasure will solve the
problem. Lean emphasizes the plan.
And the plan phase cannot be created
without a daily observation at the
gemba to find the root causes, gather
facts, discuss things with the process
operators and develop the best counter-
measure from different alternatives.
Unfortunately, many leaders jump
into the do phase without spending
enough time observing the situation
to find the real problem. The most
enjoyable part for the leader is the “do,”
but jumping to the do usually results in
a quick fix that not only might not solve
the real problem, it could create wastes
30 Industrial Management
in other linked areas and escalate the
Take the example of electrical
problems in automobiles. In one case, a
technician decided that the problem was
in the spark plug coils pack. Changing
that costs $350. Unfortunately, that
wasn’t the problem – a faulty engine
control unit (ECU) was. Replacing the
ECU cost $1,500. The waste in time,
effort and resources led to a total cost of
Define the problem relative to the
ideal to find the current and ideal states.
You might consider your quality ratio of
97 percent good, but any gap between
the current state and what could be
reached is an opportunity for your
competitors. One of the main failures
in this step is how people hide their
problems because they fear blame. There
is no culture of visualizing problems
and surfacing issues. This always makes
it difficult to define the problem and
discover the gap between the current
state and the ideal state.
Grasping the current situation is
critical. Management decisions should
be based on facts, not simply metrics or
computerized reports. This is why it’s
so important for managers to go to the
gemba to see what reality is. Watch the
process and look to solve the problem,
and remember not to blame the people.
Break down the problem into
manageable pieces. We have seen many
companies set targets and cascade them
down to the bottom levels. The leaders
below are responsible for achieving
this target in a timely manner. Top
management may blame leaders if this
target has not been achieved on time.
Upper management also often sets too
big of a target, such as an 80 percent
improvement in quality this year instead
of 20 percent improvement for four
This is another example of poor
management habits. Psychological
experiments have proven that people
tend to make progress on concrete,
small goals rather than complex, large
ones. Seeking large improvements
at once will cause a system failure,
have proven
that people
tend to make
progress on
concrete, small
goals rather
than complex,
large ones.
especially when people are new to
process improvement. Leaders have to
be patient. Breaking down the target
into small increments will encourage
people to participate and act.
When searching for the root cause
of the problem, remember that at first
glance the problem can appear to be a
person. But leaders have to dig deeper to
find the true root cause. Overconfidence
is one of the biggest barriers to problem-
solving. Leaders think they know how to
fix things and will follow the problem-
solving process at a superficial level.
Without the true root case, you probably
will build a plan and invest in resources
for something that is not going to work.
Select the suitable solution from
different countermeasures that you have
received from people involved in the
process and from different perspectives.
Lean encourages selecting a solution
from different alternatives. Prioritize
your options and select the counter-
measure that has the highest chance
of success. Perhaps you can choose
one that is easier to try and relatively
inexpensive. Then you have to develop
your plan on who, when and where.
However, it is possible that spending
time in the plan phase will not reveal
the proper solution. At this point, a
small pilot project might be necessary
in an attempt to reveal the appropriate
Only then can you go to the “do”
phase and implement the countermea-
sures. Be careful, as many managers
think that this phase is the end of the
issue, and once they push the button
the system will go live and run forever.
Keeping the process monitored is
necessary. Continue coaching and
supporting people to avoid slipping
You should also use metrics and
post them in the workplace. This helps
align people and processes to common
targets. Use visual boards so employees
can see those metrics in their workplace.
Later, the progress should be updated
and discussed regularly. Use colors for
in-progress targets and for the achieved
targets. The metrics give a starting
point to your workforce. What is our
measurable target? Where are we?
Where do we want to be?
In the “check” phase, remember that
after implementing the solution, people
will not always continue in the same
way as you wished. They won’t follow
the standard all the time. Supporting
people, continuously monitoring them,
coaching them and developing them
until the new way becomes a routine
will move your organization closer to a
perfect solution. You may not achieve
this in the first PDCA cycle. So you have
to repeat it and keep supporting people
until the new standardized process
becomes a routine.
The “act” phase is where the next
cycle begins. You next plan will be based
on the feedback you received from the
check” stage. In this phase, you should
figure out what did work, what didn’t
and standardize what worked.
Why develop people?
After the Toyota recall crisis several years
ago, company President Akio Toyoda
was quoted as saying that the corpora-
tion’s rate of growth was higher than its
rate of people development.
The key success of Toyota’s
continuous improvement process is the
effort that managers and leaders put in
people development through the PDCA
cycle. It is a remarkable learning cycle.
As you go through each PDCA, you will
learn different and higher levels of skills.
This should be done under the eye of the
mentor. Practicing new behaviors will
shift the employees out of their existing
routine and, over time, influence people’s
thoughts and actions. In the long term,
repeated new habits can lead to a culture
of continuous improvement. People
should follow plan-do-check-act so
often that it becomes their natural way
of thinking.
If a problem crops up that you
thought had been solved, the proper
question would be have you rotated the
PDCA wheels enough times? PDCA
needs to spin a lot before you reach your
target, achieve a stable process and form
new habits. v
... It's much easier to involve people working in healthcare in lean transformation more than those who work in manufacturing environments. In healthcare people who do the work are intrinsically motivated by the desire to help people and saving lives (Soliman, 2016). ...
... It's much easier to involve people working in healthcare in lean transformation more than those who work in manufacturing environments. In healthcare people who do the work are intrinsically motivated by the desire to help people and saving lives (Soliman, 2016). ...
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.