Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Leading and Learning"

I can vividly remember the moment I was promoted into Management (Salary) at Toyota (TMMK- Toyota Motor Manufacturing KY), when my Japanese trainer came up to me and shook my hand and asked - “Tracey san, do you realize the expectation as a leader?”  I had quickly considered this may be a trick question but with my experience on the production floor observing other leaders I answered, “Yes!”  He gazed back at me and said, “Please understand that now as a leader you must spent 50% of your time developing your people!”  I will have to admit I was a little perplexed as to how I was going to allot half my time to develop others; if this was the expectation then it was going to be a challenging task.  My mind began to race with thoughts like:

·        How would I make time for staff meetings?

·        How would I answer calls?

·        Take care of issues regarding Human Resources?

·        How would I keep up with evaluations or performance expectations?

·        Maintain my key performance indicators for my group?

·        Maintain budgets?

·        Keep up with my visual management system.   So on and so on!

Had I taken on more than I could handle?  These were my thoughts as I tried to imbibe everything as a new member of management with high expectations.  I think many leaders in various organizations have many similar responsibilities and often find themselves in that reactive (fire hose) mode of doing business.   Unfortunately, some companies promote based on how many fires are put out the quickest.  This management process is short-term gains at best and slowly eats at your culture/morale like a virus.  It also tends to tell the ones you are managing the wrong message and terrible habits are formed that we often label as “tribal knowledge”, or assumptions.   How do you remedy this?  This is a reality for many!  

I can remember when I took on the responsibility I felt the urgent need to always have the answers; if I didn’t, wouldn’t I come across as an inadequate leader? Isn’t the leader supposed to know everything? What would my people think if I didn’t?  How do you gain knowledge or experience and train others to do the same simultaneously? 

I remember my trainer calming me by saying, “it’s ok not to have all the answers or even have failures along the way”.  His biggest concern was that mistakes were learned from and they weren’t repeated.   He told me regardless of my level or role I was in for the organization, there was one thing that never stopped; that was “leading and learning”. No matter how much time a person invests in a role or gains experience there will always be a level of “leading and learning” that simultaneously happens  with any individual in a leadership role.  The key point he told me which I believe is the essence of how they do business- that is as a leader, “you must always study harder than your subordinates”!   As a current instructor in corporate America, I still find myself practicing this type of thinking.  As consultant do I always have the right answers?  As a consultant will I make a mistake?  Of course, but my goal is to study harder, learn, listen and engage others.  By doing this I’m practicing continuous improvement for myself so I can then share that new wisdom immediately!  For me this could happen week to week.  I could learn something from client A and share with client B the very next week.   I may develop a new “cheat-sheet” or handout that helps explain a theory by bringing it to life.  This is my constant challenge of “studying harder”.  As a leader we must constantly find ways to teach/lead by our actions.  Actions should be lead with a PDCA-mindset that supports our Business plan/True North.  With that as our guiding beacon and our willingness to engage it’s a recipe for a culture where people are your most important asset.  Hence the 50% rule! 

I think in the beginning start up phases at TMMK we were ALL leading and learning at the same time whether we realized it or not.   The Japanese were trying to teach us a new way to think in a different language, set up systems, lines and standards while newly promoted leaders were learning their role, yet at the same time teaching others, if you didn’t study harder then you may be passed by.   There was no room for complacency when the discipline is “everyday-everybody-engage people in problem solving”

When it was explained in this way, it took a little pressure off of me because I realized quickly that being present on the floor (at the gemba), involving, engaging, challenging my people pushed me to be better at asking the right questions and developing their thinking.  It was really a continuous improvement cycle as a person, and believe it or not the people start to mimic your actions as you mimic the actions of your leader.  This is how you “grow” your own leaders! 

I often tell folks that are trying to embed a Lean Culture in their organization that as a leader if you are “comfortable” in your role then you probably aren’t challenging yourself or others.  In all my different roles at Toyota they always challenged me, personally, to be better and I had to challenge others, my goal was to just be one step ahead at all times.   My leader was doing the same thing with me; this was cascaded downward throughout the organization from the President down as I’ve stated.  One thing to remember it was an expectation of our job not a choice.  This is where I feel there is such a disconnection with companies trying to embed lean; it comes across as this “add-on choice” not an expectation/discipline, or a way to do business.  When we try to label it and something special I truly believe it loses its importance.  In the late 80’s we didn’t call it anything we just lead by actions which supported the business.  Does that really need a label other than our job? Think about that! 

So my message to you if you are a leader out there and “work for” your people , you must do this at the gemba real time, asking questions and understanding current situation.  This mentality must be passed down to your leaders and the people below them.   My goal as a consultant/trainer is to always be uncomfortable in my role- that is to say challenge yourself to be better each day through self-development by engaging others in what they do.  This is the key to success not only for you as the leader and your people, but the organization as a whole which creates long-term sustainability and continuous improvement.  “Lead and Learn” give it a try!
Until next time,
Tracey Richardson


  1. Great points Tracey! You should come by Turner the next time you're in the area. http://www.turnermedicalinc.com/

    Billy K.

  2. Where are you at Billy? Thx for compliment!