How Toyota Turns Workers Into Problem Solvers

Topic: Management Improvement

How Toyota Turns Workers Into Problem Solvers, Sarah Jane Johnston interview of Steven Spear.

It is our conclusion that Toyota has developed a set of principles, Rules-in-Use we’ve called them, that allow organizations to engage in this (self-reflective) design, testing, and improvement so that (nearly) everyone can contribute at or near his or her potential, and when the parts come together the whole is much, much greater than the sum of the parts.

The main difficulty is not a knowledge gap, but a performance gap. Most of what Toyota does has been published in numerous books (The Toyota Way, The Machine That Changed the World…) and articles (see see Curious Cat links to books and articles on Toyota’s management ideas). Reading that information is wise, but that is the easy part. The difficult part is actually managing more effectively. Some of the concepts can be difficult to accept but they really are not too difficult to understand.

We’ve observed that Toyota, its best suppliers, and other companies that have learned well from Toyota can confidently distribute a tremendous amount of responsibility to the people who actually do the work, from the most senior, expeirenced [sic] member of the organization to the most junior. This is accomplished because of the tremendous emphasis on teaching everyone how to be a skillful problem solver.

This idea is simple. Creating an environment where this is actual the way things are, not just the way things are said to be, is difficult. That is why I believe so strongly in Deming’s management philosophy. The organization must be viewed as a whole. Benefits can be gained by adopting some concepts in a piecemeal manner. However, many benefits accrue only when the positive interactions between Toyota Production System (TPS – Lean) concepts occur (as systems thinking would predict).

I’m fundamentally an empiricist, so I have to go back to what we have observed. In organizations in which managers really live by these Rules, either in the Toyota system or at sites that have successfully transformed themselves, there is a palpable, positive difference in the attitude of people that is coupled with exceptional performance along critical business measures such as quality, cost, safety, and cycle time.

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