Continuous Empowerment, the Toyota Model

The philosophy developed by the Toyota firm always ensures an advance on many of its competitors who have tried to copy its methods and tools. This philosophy or culture rests on two main pillars: human dimension first, and improvement as an integral part of the management process.

Lean, according to the Toyota model, the TPS (Toyota Production System), is a human-centered approach based on exchange, observation and management of improvement actions by all actors. It assumes that employees have unlimited abilities to learn, especially from their mistakes, and to create, innovate and solve problems. For Toyota, its true strength lies in the ability of all people in the organization to adapt and constantly improve their processes.

Toyota considers that its ability to adapt and therefore to survive in the long term is based more particularly on its ability to give the resources necessary for each individual to go through small incremental improvement steps. Ambitious projects are desired and supported but, according to Toyota, the priority is to give reflexes and methods to make some small improvements every day. Human resources are thus empowered as actors in the evolution of their positions and working conditions.

Managing and improving are one: improvement is the key element of team management. In this management mode, the goal of team leaders and managers is to get suggestions from employees and refine them through a mentoring relationship.

Toyota employees focus on how to perform their tasks and manage the details of their process to the best possible working conditions and achievement. In this sense, the description and documentation of each process, procedure and protocol are essential. They are not a means of controlling employees, but a point of reference on how to carry out the work under the best conditions making it possible to ask at any time the question: « How can we make this process happen as described in the procedure? « .

Unlike traditional management whose goal is to eliminate anomalies, in the TPS model, problems must be genuinely seen as opportunities to improve working conditions and approach the standard procedure. Each problem becomes an opportunity to ask: « Let’s see what we need to improve to make it work ». The aim is to use the potential for improvement of small problems, to learn from anomalies and failures instead of stigmatizing them, and make the organization progress before these problems grow and can affect the customers.

The adoption of a positive, non-culpabilizing approach is essential if management through improvement is to work fully. It assumes that people do their best and that the problems come from the system. The typical question to ask at the time of the occurrence of a problem is very revealing of this philosophy: « What prevents employees from working according to the standard and the target condition? « .

To move towards the target condition, Toyota’s approach comes down to five questions:

  • What is the target condition?
  • What is the present condition?
  • What are the barriers to achieving the target condition? Which are under consideration at this time?
  • What is your next step?
  • When can we come and see what we have learned with this next step?

This sequence of questions is a pattern to be repeated at every new process and every new situation. It is a routine, a habit that makes it possible to learn the improvement process and simplifies the work of managers and team leaders. It gives them a usable management method for each situation without having to know the solution to the problem.

It is an effective way to promote the commitment of staff and give them confidence in the unexpected by learning a method to deal with. The manager has to be ok not to provide solutions to the problems and admitting this fact in front of the group. By the usual practice and application of this approach, the staff sees any new situation, problem, or idea coming from elsewhere as a potential source of improvement. This is one of Toyota’s main strengths and one of the reasons for its success over time.

Gemba: to understand, the best solution is often to go and see

Continuous improvement and acceptance of change are weaknesses of many companies whose performance management relies solely on reporting and ROI-based decisions. The analysis of indicators often leads managers to disconnect from the realities of the terrain. They then make decisions based on data that can only show problems once they have become large and complex.

At Toyota, managers learn to systematically observe to understand. The dashboards and indicators are visible as close as possible to the workstations, which obliges those who want to consult them to go as close as possible to the activity.

Who is responsible for the improvement?

According to Toyota, the commitment and empowerment of employees is paramount. It is realized by teaching them the improvement process. One of the false assertions about the Toyota model is that it would be a self-managed system and that continuous improvement would be achieved by employees within stand-alone teams. This is not the case for two main reasons: on the one hand the employees can not both carry out their work and analyze in depth the problems that arise, on the other hand they are for many of them at the beginning of their learning of the improvement process and problem solving method.

Toyota also encourages voluntary continuous improvement achieved by employees within quality circles through improvement suggestions. Improvement is also an integral part managers’ function and constitutes their main management tool.

Employees are involved, team leaders have the role to encourage them to generate ideas for improvement and implement the solutions proposed. In turn, the initiative and the ability to improve expressed by the employees is one of the main means of their promotion.

Employees are at the heart of Toyota’s ability to evolve, adapt and continually improve. The goal is to develop this adaptability by having the internal improvement and coaching routines repeated daily and by all employees.

The aim and the result to be achieved is not only the animation of the continuous improvement program, but a complete management system that empowers each employee to act and ensure the sustainability, adaptability and excellence of the organization.

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