David Talks About His Work

January 23, 2014

“I have had a variety of experiences working in organizations to make them perform better as both business systems and human systems. In the past twenty-five years I’ve helped departments, programs, projects, groups, individuals and whole companies clarify, plan for, and even change their expected results and improve their systems and practices for achieving them. In some situations I was the manager or leader but most often my role has been to support a group or leader who is trying to initiate processes to make things different and hopefully better for the organization and all involved.

For thirteen years I worked for Toyota in its North American manufacturing operations. During that time I had the opportunity to work with, study (both here and Japan), manage in and teach in what I believe is one of the most effective business systems in the world. By “business system” I mean the company as a whole and not just the Toyota Production System (TPS). As a result I learned a great deal not only about TPS but the basic business processes (strategy deployment, decision making, planning, horizontal and vertical alignment, process management, problem solving and reflection) that make lean manufacturing work as a business approach for Toyota.

I think the work I have done since leaving Toyota at the beginning of 2000 is best described as “Process Consultation” to help companies and not-for-profit organizations improve business performance, restructure and refocus their organizations, transform to leaner operations, and/or initiate strategic change. My role is generally to call attention to the processes and practices that are necessary for sustainable change and to facilitate thinking about the most effective ways to gain support, resolve problems and stay on course with implementation.

The approach I prefer in providing process consultation is a coaching relationship. I believe I am most effective when I partner with an executive or manager who is trying to improve performance or bring about change in his or her organization. I often help clients design and facilitate their change activities but I feel I contribute the most when I can coach the leader or group through planning and implementing their improvement processes themselves. My concern is not just that we achieve the expected results but that my client and others learn through the experience. If the client and the organization are better able to carry out and even improve on the processes on their own next time then I have left something of value behind.

April 1, 2013

At the moment, I’m most focused on a new concept, Leading Culture Change from the Hubs, that I believe is the wave of the future in lean continuous improvement. Lean thinking in the U.S. began in the 1990s in what I like to call “The Age of Just Do It,” — a call to action by Womack and Jones to seize the nearest crisis, map a value stream and become a change agent. From there it evolved into “The Age of the System” in which a lot of companies tried to create and enforce their version of the Toyota Production System. The most recent incarnation of Lean has been the “Make Lean the Culture Age” where people have either tried to change the cultures in their organizations to fit Lean or have tried to create new problem-solving cultures.

It’s the attempts to create these new problem-solving cultures that have captured my attention. It seems like most people want to take one of two approaches: They either want to create a Lean culture from the top down, by announcements, pronouncements and mass training experiences, or create a Lean culture from the bottom up, with employee involvement initiatives, rapid-improvement events and specialist facilitators. Neither one of these approaches involves middle management – and that’s the rub.

Supervisors, unit managers, department heads and other operational leaders are essential to a functioning workplace, productivity and cultural transformation. If upper management is the axle, and first line employees are where the rubber meets the road, middle managers are the hubs. Without them, the wheels fall off.

How do you create a problem-solving culture from the hubs? I want to go back to my 15 years of experience working in Toyota to answer that. (I know. Toyota has recently had problems. But those stemmed from upper management losing sight of priorities, not from the middle managers, front line employees or the production system.) The thing that most stands out from my experience with literally countless Japanese practitioners of Lean is the consistency of their requests and questions to me:

             “David-san, please think about…”

            “What is the real problem you are trying to solve?”

            “What is actually happening?”

           “How do you know that?”

           “Why is that happening?”

Those statements and questions pushed me back from my assumptions, ideas and opinions and forced me to think about what they were based on. And the message behind them was even more powerful and personal: My job included figuring out what caused problems and how to solve them. That message creates a totally different kind of worker than a message of, “Just do what you are told,” “We got these orders, we have to execute them,” “Get it done; we’ll worry about it later,” “Don’t give me the details, just fix it.” A worker who is asked by a hub manager to step back and think develops a sense of responsibility for problems and solutions. That’s the grease of culture change.

So what do I recommend to hub managers or upper-level (axle) managers who make the organizational wheels spin? I can only give you a brief outline here. But in short: 1) Recognize the central importance of the hub managers in your company; 2) Practice the discipline of refraining from asking the rhetorical questions you already know the answers to and instead ask your employees questions that pull up their deep, tacit knowledge of their jobs and the way things work; 3) Create safe zones where employees can experiment with improvements and countermeasures and learn from the outcomes.

There are longer answers, of course. And an art to it all. But I’m convinced the new age of Lean is the Age of Leading Culture Change from the Hubs.