How Toyota pulls improvement from the front line

The following first appeared on the Harvard Business Review.

Toyota is famous for its Toyota Production System, an approach that effectively engages front-line workers in improving their work. As I argued in a recent post, “pulling” improvement from the front line is critical to continually improve operations, and Toyota does it very well. Companies that “push” work improvements from the top usually generate tepid front-line enthusiasm. Despite some missteps in the last couple of years, Toyota’s ascent to the top of the auto industry has been for one reason: quality. And a big reason for its unrivaled quality is worker participation in process improvement. A platitude? Hardly. The company implements an average of nine ideas per employee per year, as described in Chuck Yorke and Norman Bodek’s book All You Gotta Do Is Ask.

Context, management processes and people

How does Toyota do it? There are three essential elements: context, management processes, and people.

The context is crucial: Constant improvement is part of everyone’s job description. Toyota’s culture encourages front-line workers to suggest local improvements and help make them. Management has established a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the workforce. Managers and workers can make improvement part of their jobs without fear because streamlining work won’t eliminate their jobs. Workers make suggestions out of a sense of pride in improving work conditions, and out of a sense of togetherness. Toyota nurtures camaraderie through lots of group bonding activities. In most cases, the firm rewards the team that came up with the improvement, not the individual. Unlike most companies I’ve seen, Toyota doesn’t separate top management from the field with suggestion boxes. Senior managers go to the front line and listen, which shows respect to those far from the executive suite. That energizes workers.

How work improvements work their way up the organization chart isn’t happenstance. Toyota has explicit management processes for it. Toyota defines standard procedures for how to execute work as a baseline for improvement and to ensure organizational goals are implanted in the front lines, where the real work of the organization takes place. When front-line workers spot a work problem, they have a clear way to suggest improvements. Their idea goes through a quality circle of peer workers, which then must be approved by their manager. Upper-level managers view the ideas, then take action. This is a bottom-up, not top down, system.

The last reason this works at Toyota is because of the roles and skills of the people. Front-line workers know the true meaning and value of each standard procedure — not only in theory. They have the skills and knowledge to solve problems and an end-to-end process perspective. The supervisors are pivotal in developing these competencies. They check and confirm that the standard procedures have been put in place and that workers are following them exactly. Supervisors can improve processes through coaching, questioning (not ordering), and making front-line workers think and take responsibility. Managers (supervisors, managers, directors, and above) motivate workers by meeting with them to communicate the corporate vision.

Would Toyota’s approach work at your organization? Not easily.

Most organizations I’ve seen would find Toyota’s approach difficult to digest. Their context doesn’t allow work improvement to be part of everyone’s job. The workers are too busy doing the day-to-day work, so they don’t have the time to suggest improvements. Managers are skeptical that workers will do what’s best for the company and not just for them. That attitude obstructs any serious initiative to solicit worker feedback. The mindset is that managers have all the answers and their jobs are to dictate them — not to learn from workers. These beliefs run very deep in most organizations I’ve seen. They are not easily changed.

The management processes of these companies don’t support bottom-up improvement. Work isn’t standardized (standards may be written down, but aren’t followed consistently), and formal suggestion systems (e.g., quality circles) are rare.

Lastly, the roles and skills of the people aren’t conducive to change coming from the bottom of the hierarchy. Supervisors don’t make sure workers follow consistent standards. They dole out work but don’t have time or expectations that they should improve the way the work is done. They move frequently to new assignments, and they manage by the numbers, not by the process. Without knowledge of the work, they can’t coach effectively. They don’t know what the optimal process is. They can’t ask probing questions. They don’t have the confidence to say they don’t know; they got to where they are because they had the answers.

If you want continual process improvements by engaging the front line but aren’t ready to adopt Toyota’s revolutionary approach, is there another way? In another post, I’ll share stories of other organizations that have turned up the dial of front-line engagement. As I mentioned in a previous post, you need to be careful in trying to emulate others’ successes. Just because it works at Toyota doesn’t mean it will work elsewhere. The art is knowing how to take pieces from others’ successes and create your own.

Question: What approaches for engaging front-line workers in improvement activities have you seen produce results?


Categories: Continuous Improvement, Disciplines, Manufacturing, Markets

Author:Brad Power

Brad is a consultant and researcher in process innovation. His current research is on sustaining attention to process management. He is currently conducting research with the Lean Enterprise Institute.

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2 Comments on “How Toyota pulls improvement from the front line”

  1. Ron Webb
    May 3, 2012 at 9:16 am #

    I am a big fan of TPS and think it is applicable to a way broader audience than just the traditional manufacturing industry. Specifically because of the high degree of employee engagement in the change process. It is ground-up by design.

    I’m actually working with an organization know that is feeling this exact pain. They have outlined some “strategic initiatives” for the employees. They got input from the employees to determine those initiatives, but they are so watered down, they are irrelevant to most of the individuals. It has developed into a “you will be engaged around this” process.

    Most employees frustration is personally driven. It has to be a personal solution. They can really get their arms around making things more efficient and effective within their span of control. That, I’ve found, excites them. It is then a strong management team’s role to ensure alignment, communication, and support of very effective and engaged employees.

  2. May 4, 2012 at 12:17 am #

    Spot on in getting to the nub of the business problem we all face (and not only in business mind you – it’s common in all levels of government too). The tragedy is that you could have written the same article fifteen years ago about Nissan in Durham in England or Cadbury Schweppes’s operations in Yorkshire. Both organizations then had a change of CEOs and communications with the shop floor changed!! Thirty plus years ago when Marcus Sieff ran Marks and Spencer the same was true and I am told this applies to the entire Richemont empire run by Anton Rupert and his son. This philosophy was also the driving force behind Jack Welch at GE and Terry Leahy at Tesco. In my own experience, i watched this change when Sir Colin Marshall stepped aside as CEO of British Airways in the 80s.

    However, there is more to this than just getting top management to change their approach to adopting a bottom up/top down management model. A lot of this ability has been destroyed by the delayering of middle management (for example in the banks) where there is just not enough collective knowledge at the top about what is happening and what is needed at the bottom – middle management used to do and know this stuff.

    One could have hoped that the big investment in IT systems we have lived through in the last 30 years would have helped with this. It seems that this has not been the case (with some exceptions) and there is a shortage of tools to help identify performance improvements through process change, whether top down or bottom up. This market gap is exactly what we at Centimex Performance Improvement are trying to address. That is to provide a toolbox that allows an organization to map its processes, download cost and performance standard data from core systems, model process change and test the results. To add to the top down/bottom up power, the software builds in a gain share system to incentivize all employees to participate in the process design and redesign processes.

    With these tools any organization can follow the TPS way

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