How To Avoid Big Company Disease – How Toyota Got Their Groove Back

In early 2014, one company took a giant step backwards that many felt would yield only a small step forward. But for Akio Toyoda, the CEO of Toyota, it was a step that would eventually eliminate the need for even more steps. Step by meticulous step, he set forth to create a better learning culture. A culture where human creativity and curiosity was brought back to the production floor.

And just what were the humans and their “so called curiosity and creativity” supposed to replace? You did notice I said what, not whom?

The humans were going to replace the robots. That’s right. I said, the humans were going to replace the robots.

This production dichotomy-one, discussed in Bloomberg News, sent shockwaves throughout America. But it did something even more shocking – it showed the respect for people Toyota leaders are legendary for.

Furthermore, Akio Toyoda humbled himself by acknowledging Toyota was finally suffering from Big Company Disease (BCD) – a name coined by Jeffrey Liker, author of The Toyota Way. A disease where trying to remain a big company usurps respect for people. The disease is spread by leaders who demand people push out more & more product. Learning stops and then quality suffers.

Ultimately, BCD takes over entire cultures and Toyota’s leaders and employees were showing early symptoms. Employees were failing to learn and leaders were failing to recognize learning how to improve machines, how to improve materials, how to improve methods used in production and most importantly, how to improve man, resides solely within the minds of employees, not within machines.

With America’s employee disengagement rate currently standing at 75-80%, it’s clear BCD is contagious. And it is bad, very, very bad.

But Toyota leadership recognizes BCD. They have seen it before. Fortunately for Toyota but unfortunately for American car manufacturers, Toyota leaders have been right about their tremendous respect for people far more often than they have been wrong. Check out these metrics.

Since inception nearly 60 years ago, Toyota has had just one unprofitable year, and they still have never resorted to layoffs. In 2013, Toyota’s profits of 17.8 B surpassed the combined total of Ford, GM, and Chrysler. And guess what, Toyota built far fewer cars.

So what does it take to create this type of culture? One where learning comes first, value creation makes it happen and leaders make it possible?

The Japanese learning continuum of “Show Them, Tell Them, Let Them Do It, and Praise Them.”  They are part of an even bigger learning system. That is Kaizen, which has the equivalent American translation of “Change-Better.”

Kaizen helps people learn and helps cultures start improving. It helps businesses create more value. It requires people to learn more about themselves, one another, the system that creates value and it helps people and businesses improve at a constant pace.

For anyone trying to simply mimic Toyota, good luck. Their system has taken years to design, it’s continually being improved and it’s unique to Toyota. Your business and people are unique too. Trying to “plug in” another businesses system, will not work for you. You need to develop your own.

But here are a few deliverables that can help better engage people. They are all built on the foundation of “Respect For People.”

  1. Make Kaizen training fun, but make it meaningful too. Help employees learn what wasteful activities look like. Help them learn how and why each particular process in your production system functions the way it does.
  2. Set goals for your team to achieve and sustain after each Kaizen event. Make them specific. But not so specific that employees can’t test out their own curiosity and creativity to achieve them. Don’t just tell employees how to do something, show them how it’s done, then let them learn by doing it while testing out their own ideas for improving it. Stay out of their way and praise them when they’re through.
  3. Employee creativity and curiosity, necessary ingredients for continuous improvement, are frozen solid within the minds of Americans. This is normal. It comes from life experiences of how employees have already been treated. The current employee disengagement rate is the highest it has ever been. Most importantly, the rate is a survey of the employee’s own Key Performance Indicator. It measures: “What is it like for me to work here, and what has it been like for me elsewhere.” Because it’s their data, you are going to have to work very hard to improve it.

And here come the really hard parts…

  • You must defrost human curiosity and creativity slowly.
  • You must treat the person and their input with new found respect and do it consistently.
  • You must implement employee ideas to make their improvements part of your new way immediately.
  • You must help employees make their improvements sustainable which takes your patience.
  1. Don’t revert back to the “old way of doing things” especially after employees have experienced their own curiosity and creativity to solve problems. They need praise, you need improvement. It’s a fair exchange.
  2. Take employees out of production during Kaizen. However, ideas should be tested against the desired outcomes in a live production setting, not just a classroom. Don’t allow interruptions of other people’s problems to get in the way either. If you do, that’s not showing respect for the person.
  3. As your Kaizen program improves and so do people, find other areas that need a lift. Let employees from other units sit in on an event just for the experience. They will appreciate the company’s new approach to human development. If your programs are enthusiastic and meaningful, word will spread that employee’s ideas now matter, and additional employees will want to become part of future events.
  4. When Kaizen events end, each team member must report out the team’s findings. Make this report out process routine and make it available for everyone to experience. This includes teams reporting their findings to executives and fellow employees. It’s important that facilitators speak little, if any, during the report out. It’s the employee’s ideas that matter.
  5. Don’t skimp on investing in, and don’t get in the way of, the marriage between happiness and value creation. It’s your chance as a leader to see what employees can really do. Reward employees by improving the marriage and help all parties stay together.

“Robots do not hold on to life. They can’t. They have nothing to hold on with – no soul, no instinct. Grass has more will to live than they do.” -Karel Capek


This article was published by Colin Baird on Linked-In: