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Toyota: where everybody’s a scientist

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in Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Here’s how an American up-and-comer trained for a senior management job at one of Toyota’s U.S. plants.

First, Bob Dallis learned his job the hard way—by practicing it—which is how Toyota trains every new employee. What Dallis learned is that Toyota improves through experimentation and that improving processes was not his job. His role was to lead and enable his team.

In 12 weeks at a U.S. engine plant and more time in Japan, Dallis was to reduce the “overburden” on workers: walking, reaching and other extraneous efforts.

His training yielded four main lessons:
  1. Direct observation works best. He didn’t have to figure out why a machine failed; he was only to watch until it failed. Businesses often rely on indirect observation—reports, interviews, surveys, etc.—which are valuable but not as valuable as direct observation. In Dallis’s first six weeks, he had more than 23,000 chances to observe complete work cycles.

  2. Proposals should be structured as experiments. Toyota’s production system aims to fully understand both problem and solution. If a parts rack should be closer to the assembler’s hand, how much closer? How many seconds do you expect to save? How many did you actually save? Why?

  3. Everybody should experiment as often as possible. Dallis thought he was hot stuff by averaging one improvement per day. But after arriving in Japan, he was expected to make one every 22 minutes. He picked up the pace, using “quick and dirty” ways to test ideas.

  4. Managers should coach, not fix. His coach showed Dallis how to observe a worker to spot signs of stress or wasted effort. He never suggested actual improvements, but how to find opportunities for improvements. He gave Dallis whatever he needed to act quickly.
Bottom line: “I saw a line that was 15 years old but that had the capacity to build 90 different engine types,” Dallis says. “It was amazing that they solved so many problems with such simple equipment.”

—Adapted from “Learning to Lead at Toyota,” Steven J. Spear, Harvard Business Review.

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