Ernie and I were blessed to have many lessons from our Japanese trainers during our time at Toyota Motor Manufacturing. Some were purposely orchestrated for us to fail, some through detailed thinking, some during observations and some verbalized. The little nuggets that were often told to us were deeply valuable. We didn't always realize it at the time, it wasn't until we were in a situation that took us back to the moment when it was said. Then we had the "ah ha", and finally knew the greater lesson. Sometimes the discrepancy was our language barrier, but often times we couldn't grasp the metaphor or analogy they were using, but eventually it came full circle back and that's when you truly "got it", kind of like the muscle memory of riding a bike.
For example, the word "nemawashi" was used quite often in our environment and we labeled it under the category of gaining consensus or getting proper buy-in. At a high level this is correct. In the way that a Japanese trainer may explain it you might find it to be a little more in depth. I can remember once my trainer describing it as "prepping the soil" to plant a tree. Of course I gave them a bizarre look, but they asked me to think about what is necessary for that to take place and for the tree to flourish. Well I articulated that process step by step to him (the trainer) and he asked me to think of the "tree" as an idea. How can we cultivate ideas on a daily basis and prepare them for sharing and applying among the team? As a leader we must always be prepping the soil, not only for an individual but for the team and how that cascades upward to the company. It's an important challenge everyone must embrace and connect their line of sight.
I can vividly remember the moment I was given my team leader hat. In our culture the hat with a specific stripe color was a visual control for leadership. A blue hat with a brown stripe was a team leader, and a brown hat with a blue stripe was a group leader. These positions spent the majority of their time at or near the process supporting the team when discrepancies occurred. When I was handed by blue hat I remember my trainer saying, "Tracey-san", always be uncomfortable." I didn't totally understand this statement in the context of how he said it, but I could promise you as a 21 year old team leader I was uncomfortable those first few months(and continued to be). So no worries there (grin). As I grew as a leader and an individual in this role I realized that uncomfortable was like being "challenged". That if an individual feels comfortable in their position each day then complacency can step in and then it becomes about putting my time in and going home.
We don't want an environment that feels like a prison sentence, but rather a day full of empowering folks to challenge themselves. This means as a leader I/we have to do the same. Our trainers often referred to that as leading and learning simultaneously. This practice allowed us to learn but at the same time coach. How can this happen one might ask? Isn't it necessary for us to have the answers first? So I often say, just lead not from a position of power, but an empowering one. Often times you might have to say, "I don't know", and that is OK. You can say, "let's go find out together and learn". To many that might be uncomfortable at first because we have been conditioned as humans that the boss always has the answers. If they don't then they should be the boss, correct? This is a myth, one that is hard to change my lean thinking friends. If the work manages us each day and our people are going through the motions then we might as well turn their brains off and put a battery in. I will admit that the comfort zone is a vortex we can easily find ourselves sucked into, we cling on to the sides to not fall down further. It's not easy to climb out, but if we take it one step at a time we find that we can avoid the black-hole of comfort all together.
This is a paradigm shift in thinking, it's not easy to put yourself out there without a back-up plan at times. Raw unplanned learning can often give us the most rewarding results. Being a preferenced introvert I can admit that I didn't really care for speaking in front of others in my earlier years. So my leader and trainer pushed me to do our KYK 5 min talks in front of our team. I was nervous at first that people would notice the tremor in my voice or how fast my heart was racing, but in time it became less difficult so I was asked to raise the bar. My next task was to join a Quality Circle, these were our problem solving teams that worked together (7-10 people) to solve problems in their specific area. You had to share ideas, follow PDCA, and then create new standard work with the team leaders if the ideas were valid through experimentation. After working through several activities I decided to enroll in the class to become a quality circle leader. This would challenge me at an entirely different level, I just wasn't responsible for myself, but now for a team. I had to not only guide (as a team member level), but coach problem solving and foster ideas. Little did I know I was developing myself for the next level. All this took place across a 3 year span, but slowly I was creating base hits preparing myself for a home-run one day.
So from my experiences, which were many, I feel that the lessons I learned were layered like a wedding cake. Each layer of learning is foundational to the next. Without a strong foundation we can find ourselves on unstable ground. What we (Ernie and I) often find out there in various industry is the need to cling on but we know, what is comfortable. What we know is often what we hoard, create as our own, or what is easy for us. To walk down an unknown path can be compared to walking in the dark. But if we aren't moving the furniture each day (chaos) we can navigate through all the layers we created in the form of standard work and sustainable processes. This allows us to have a baseline to improve, in order to do that, we often have to challenge the status quo and build upon that tribal knowledge we have gained to create new and better ways we all can align with. When we align we cascade upward and downward hitting the KPI's the organization has set. When we know we are making a measurable difference, there is nothing like that base-hit. It really drives us to want to be at the plate more. So when I may find myself getting too comfortable with what I do or how I/we coach. We challenge ourselves to find a better way, this keeps us on the value-add side of the fence. Never stop pushing, always be learning no matter what level you are!
Until next time,
Tracey and Ernie Richardson