Learning to be a Lean leader: Lessons from Toyota

2012 10 01

Along with many colleagues in Saskatchewan’s health care system, I’m participating in Lean Leader Certification training.  I am gaining many new insights into, and tools, for process improvement.  And, like the rest of the people I’m training with, I want to begin applying this in my work.

Many of the leaders in my group expressed concern that it may be a long time before some regions or sectors other than acute care benefit from Rapid Process Improvement Workshops (RPIWs).  The implicit fear is that, without support from kaizen specialists to run improvement events, the training we are receiving will not lead to improvements soon enough in areas that are not currently getting attention and support from the John Black & Associates (JBA) consultants.

While understandable, this fear misses the point of why Lean training is being delivered to senior leaders across the health system.  Our job is to use this new knowledge to change our work as leaders – that is, to change the work we do daily as leaders.  As we do that, we set the expectation and pattern for the people on our teams.

OK. Easy to say. But HOW do we change our daily work routines?  Having just finished reading Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results by Mike Rother, I’d highly recommend this book to all of my colleagues also in Lean training. It describes the pattern of work of leaders in Toyota, what they do each day that has made Toyota so successful.  The book cautions against relying on RPIWs, value stream mapping, and action-item lists as the principal tools to effect improvement.  (I think our JBA senseis would agree with this).  Rother points out that while these tools have been extensively used by companies other than Toyota, few have achieved Toyota’s level of success in improvement.

An important message in Toyota Kata is that the automaker’s success is primarily because their reason for using the tools and techniques of process improvement (i.e., Lean) is not to fix problems, but rather to learn. They use Lean tools to gain an ever-deeper understanding of their work processes, and through this, a better understanding of how to improve them.

A second key message in the book is that Toyota teaches people to only try to change one thing at a time, and to test those changes as quickly as possible within a daily or weekly cycle of work.  Again, the motivation is to test changes in order to learn more about the process, not to create the “right” fix. Single changes tested and learned from in real time are most instructive. That’s because the simplicity of a single change and the rapid feedback from quick tests within the normal work process make the cause-and-effect more apparent.

Those of us learning about Lean should take heart from Toyota’s wisdom.  We don’t have to get it perfect, nor do we have to do a big initiative or RPIW in order to “do” Lean well.  Mostly, what’s required of us as leaders is to be curious and eager to better understand the work processes we’re accountable for. We need go to the gemba, to observe the work where it’s happening. We need to try using some of the tools we’re learning, to help identify the current state and a reasonable “next state” goal. We need to test small changes quickly. And we need to ask ourselves: what did we learn – and what does that suggest for the next small test to help us move towards our goal?

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4 Responses to “Learning to be a Lean leader: Lessons from Toyota”

  1. sheila cooper
    October 11, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

    I to am taking the Lean Leader Trainig – my thoughts are this- we shouldn’t over think it or get caught up in I can’t – but we need to believe that every day we learn more we can make improvements to our system and improve care for our patients, We need to put our negative thoughts aside and BELIEVE- together we can. What a great opportunity for Saskatchewan to be a first – a whole province engaged in a lean pathway that will forever change our system. I think it is worth the effort!!

    • Gary Teare
      Gary Teare
      October 14, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

      Thanks for your note Sheila. In the midst of all the change and learning it can get overwhelming at times – but the kind of “can do” (“will do”) attitude you are reflecting in your comment is just the ticket! I agree with you – “what a great opportunity for Saskatchewan…”! All the best in your lean leader training and beyond…
      – Gary

  2. JBA_Sucks
    October 2, 2012 at 9:21 am #

    JBA sucks and the whole training is mismanaged with lots of waste or people’s time and money. Idea is good but implementation is extremely poor.

    • Gary Teare
      Gary Teare
      October 5, 2012 at 6:16 pm #

      Hi there “JBA_Sucks” – thanks for reading my blog post and posting a comment. It’s gratifying to know that people are reading and interacting with what is written.

      Sounds to me like you have some interest in and hopes for what lean can do to help improve our health care but have perhaps not had a stellar experience in some training you’ve received from John Black and Associates (JBA). I hope you won’t let that get in the way of your trying to use some of what you’re learning in your own work anyway.
      My experience of JBA training has been pretty positive – but I know that there has been some variability in people’s experience. The good news is JBA is really open to feedback – and we’ve noticed adaptations and improvements in their work with us in Saskatchewan over the last year. I believe these are just the “growing pains’ of the scale of our ambition for lean in Saskatchewan health care. I hope you will give your feedback to JBA or your local Kaizen Promotion Office/Quality Improvement group in your health region. They really want it – in order to improve.
      Best wishes,

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