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How Toyota Coached Leaders to Improve Processes With Learning Journals - GoLeanSixSigma.com

One of the challenges presented to us by our trainers at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky (TMMK) was to document our daily learning. That may sound simple, but if you don’t have the discipline to do that every day, it’s far from an easy task.

We asked, “how would we have time for that?” and “why would that be beneficial?” Luckily, we were leading and learning together.

Grab a Journal

They instructed us to grab a journal of some kind (back then it was old school paper notebook) and create a column for “what did I learn today?” and list as many things as you could articulate. The other column was to be titled, “Who did I develop?” As you’d expect, our first our reaction was, “Is this really the most value-added use of my time?” But our trainers persisted.

As with any investment in people development, the ROI will show up in ways you can connect to each individual and each team as well as the company’s Key Process Indicators (KPI’s). You can’t afford not to make this investment.

We eventually figured out the value of writing in our journals and stopped questioning whether or not we had the time. That led to our journey as leaders. In the early weeks of documenting my thoughts in my journal, I can remember an entry about having “Empathy.” As we discover and grow on our journey of learning with people, versus selling or telling our own ideas, we find ourselves in situations requiring proper interaction and communication and that starts with Empathy.

What Does Having Empathy Mean?

When I internalize that word, I consider what each person goes through on a daily basis. Not only what happens at work, but what affects them during the other parts of their lives that causes distraction at work. As a leader, I need to understand both how I am perceived as well as how I perceive others—taking into account all the factors that impact them. If I witness Uncertainty, Frustration, Mistrust, Enthusiasm, Pride, Failure, and Success in the people I serve, it should prompt me to ask questions. We can witness these characteristics in others through their actions (or lack of them), body language and verbalization.

When I consider each of those characteristics, I need to have an accurate understanding of other people’s feelings, how they got there and the circumstances and environment that led to it. Remember, capturing the learning enhances our ability to give proper feedback and to learn how to react in future situations. Our trainers, along with President Fujio Cho, always encouraged us to share our gained wisdom with the next generation. Our ability to internalize the situation—good and bad—and make the necessary adjustments to our learning style while developing others was key for growth. I referred to this at Toyota as “Space to Think.”

What Does Empathy Look and Sound Like?

If I’m in the leadership/coaching role trying to grasp the situation of a team member experiencing a discrepancy, I will try to show the following characteristics (there are more) if I’m listening with Empathy.

  • Having a relaxed, calm body language
  • Holding attentive, yet comfortable, eye contact
  • Affecting pleasant, caring facial expressions
  • Nodding my head for visual confirmation that I’m there with the person
  • Letting team members finish their sentences before interjecting
  • Asking clarifying questions sparingly (if necessary), letting the team member summarize

If you are practicing as a leader, you may ask, “How do I respond?”, “What would the questions sound like in a one-to-one setting?” Below are some suggestions. There are other ways to ask or respond, these are to get you thinking.

  • “From listening to you, it sounds like you have a lot on your plate right now—how can I help?”
  • “From my observation, it seems it upset you when (name) spoke to you in that way? Can we all discuss it together?”
  • “I sense that you want to keep this responsibility, but you may be feeling overwhelmed, how can I help?”
  • “Change can be frustrating, can we discuss further or ‘go see’ together to clarify any misunderstandings?”
  • “It sounds like you have worked hard on implementing your Quality Circle suggestion, how can I further support you?”

Journals As a Leading Indicators

There are different scenarios we may be subjected to as leaders. Using a journal, as our trainers suggested, helps us document all types of interactions and helps us frame the best questions to ask. It also guides us to observe and document leading indicators in an effort to avoid negative confrontations down the road.

One of the most important things to remember as a coach, before offering your “2 cents”—your opinions and assumptions—is to make sure you have done all you can to listen, paraphrase and reshare what you heard. Get the other person’s confirmation so mutual trust and respect are not compromised. Practice empathetic listening to the best of your ability as you learn together.

The main objective is to understand:

  • Why is a particular issue important to them?
  • What do they need or what would they like to see?
  • Is there more they can tell you?

Journals for Personal Growth

As I continue to develop myself within my Individual Development Plan (IDP) (all salaried leaders were required to do this at Toyota), I used my journal to encourage myself to look for the areas that are uncomfortable for me and turned those into my targeted IDP areas. As my trainers told me in the early days, “when you stop learning your value goes down, so always be uncomfortable!” I can honestly share with you today—almost 31+ years later from my start date—I stay uncomfortable on purpose to keep my value high in what I’m able to share from the essence of my training time.

A Person Is Only the “Face of the Process”

Another valuable takeaway from my “journal journey” is to always differentiate the person working the process— the “face of the process”—from the process itself. This is a big distinction when it comes to coaching and grasping the situation when we communicate to the people we work for.

For example, if the line or value stream of material and information flow isn’t meeting the internal or external customer expectations, we first must “go and see” before engaging with the people doing the work. We must ask questions and do our best not to make assumptions or rely on tribal knowledge. One of the most common responses I hear is, “I’ve seen this before, and here is what we need to do!” That has rework written all over it. Break the habitual response and go see!

Watch Out for the “5 Who’s” and the “Root Blame”

If I approach a person doing the work and ask, “Why are you doing this?” or “Why did you do that?”, that can easily be misconstrued as blame. These type of questions can immediately put the worker in defensive mode even if we try to affect the right tone, body language and facial expressions. A typical response to line of inquiry goes something like this, “Why have you allowed it to go on for so long?” This can be the start of a contentious back-and-forth exchange dubbed the “5-Who’s” and the “Root Blame.”

When we are in a result-driven moment, the easy path is to react to what the person is doing at the surface versus the look to process below—the iceberg visual we all know. If we practice “Space to Think” and we step out as a coach and look holistically at the process, not just the person, then we are able to learn. A person is only as good as we design the process to be.

Becoming a good leader means pausing to reframe your question even during intense situations. “Respect for People” must be the priority. How you react in the moment will help you down the road. If you invest the time and ask less pointed questions, then you build mutual trust and respect with your team.

Reframing the Question

Given the likely defensive reaction, how should you reframe the “why did you…?” question? Try something like this:

“Hi (name), I know it’s been a hectic day, but I would like to learn more about this process. Do you mind taking the time, since you are the expert, to help me learn together with you?”

Nothing is perfect, but this provides us with a better opportunity to create a mutually trustful and respectful environment. It paves the way for us to grasp what truly is broken in the process. This opens a window for us to see what the person deals with on a daily basis, and can easily be blamed for. In my experience, people are generally receptive to showing you the problem if you practice listening with empathy and paraphrase what you are hearing.

Mr. Fujio Cho

Recollections of a Revered Toyota Leader

Mr Fujio Cho often said to us, when he was President at TMMK, “As we grow together with the people we are blessed to serve we must study harder as leaders.” He told once a story of his personal learning journey as a leader where he was working to move from his comfort zone of Finance and Accounting to the Production area.

His senior leaders asked him to study harder. He admitted he did not know exactly what to do but “his seniors,” he called them, did. My guess is the Toyoda family, and Taiichi Ohno, encouraged him to “go and see,” listen to the people doing the work and report his findings. He admitted the uncertainty he felt as he grasped the situation. The line was unbalanced and unstable, but knew he had resources in the people doing the work.

The first thing he did was explain to everyone why and how they would improve the line together. This was when Mr. Cho experienced his own advice to, “Go See—Ask Why—and Show Respect.” He described his experience with his seniors as a big challenge not only for him in his growth but to grow with his people. He was an outsider and a leader but since they all were learning together, they had to “get their hands dirty” to improve the process.

Imagine the journal entries Mr. Cho must have made during that time in his career and how it molded him as a leader. His drive to share his wisdom with me and the thousands of others he touched in many countries made him an “iconic influencer” at Toyota Motor Corp as well as an honorary Chairman. It all hinges on taking the time to invest in people, process and purpose which sets us up for effective and efficient problem solving.

Mr. Fujio Cho

I truly believe the soft side of all this stuff we call lean is the absolute key to the success of any person or company trying to improve their climate or culture. It starts and ends with people. Please consider them the most important asset of your organization. Part of any company’s mission/vision should say, “We are a company that develop people that just happens to make____________!”

Call to Action

My challenge for each reader is to document who you developed and how each day, and what did you learn. If you do that for at least a year you can measure your own progress and how well you are demonstrating the knowledge captured and returned through your actions with others.

Tracey Richardson

Tracey Richardson is president and co-owner of Teaching Lean Inc. and co-author of the Shingo Publication Prize-winning book The Toyota Engagement Equation. She is on the faculty at the Lean Enterprise Institute as well as several colleges where she focuses on developing the capabilities of Team Members, Leadership, and Executives in Lean Thinking.
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