Hands hold a small world

Turnaround Leadership: The Differences Between Japan and the West

What's the best way for leaders to communicate a shift in corporate strategy? How do you even know when it's time for such a change? This course explains how Japan might have one answer, Western companies another.

It’s been seven years since I became involved with the global executive training for Toyota Motor Corporation. This year, I had the opportunity to take part in the Japan Session of Toyota’s Leadership Development Program.

At first glance, Toyota’s human resource development program appears to be a highly sophisticated knowledge-creating process. In actuality, it is a monument of sweat and hard work. Toyota considers all employees to be part of one big family. Supervisors and team members continuously repeat Toyota business practices (TBP), putting their efforts into on-site practice. A feeling of affection and gratitude—similar to that of a teacher-disciple relationship in Japanese traditional arts—is slowly nurtured between supervisors and team members.

This leads to a lifelong relationship to teach and to be taught.

Ideally, supervisors do not teach all of their knowledge to their team members at once. Rather, they focus on what is deemed necessary at the time and in the required amount. This process has withstood the test of time, despite globalization and changes in society.

From a Western perspective, this method of teaching may appear to lack completeness and consistency. However, the true intention is instilling independence in team members so they can think and acquire knowledge on their own. For supervisors to practice this teaching method, they must be aware of not only their team members’ skills, but their mentality.

Turnaround Leadership: The Differences Between Japan and the West

What's the best way for leaders to communicate a shift in corporate strategy? How do you even know when it's time for such a change? This course explains how Japan might have one answer, Western companies another.

This is an excellent test for supervisors at Toyota.

In essence, Toyota requires employees to think not only from the viewpoint of their supervisor, but from the viewpoint of their supervisor’s boss.

For instance, a team leader would think about his or her own tasks as a group leader, then think about the tasks of his or her immediate supervisor, and then further attempt to understand the duties that need to be performed by the general manager.

What does this accomplish?

Firstly, it raises the consciousness of employees. The scope of duties of a supervisor two levels above is broad, and the responsibility heavy. Considering this enables employees to objectively view the work of their own teams.

Secondly, coordination and cooperation between teams can be facilitated.

Let’s assume that there are two groups in one business department, and each group is divided into three teams. It is often the case that these six teams are not on the same page. Nevertheless, by viewing things from the perspective of the general manager, it becomes easier for all of them to understand the actions that need to be taken to work together and realize the policy of the business department as a whole.

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During training, I asked (and doggedly repeated) the following questions to Toyota’s global executives: “Who is your supervisor? Who is your supervisor’s boss?” Finally, we landed on this question:

“Who is the supervisor of Toyota Motor Corporation’s president?”
The immediate answer I received from the executives was “customers.”

Next question: “Then who is the supervisor of our customers?”
The responses: “Something great,” “Earth,” and “Society” (among others)

Amazingly, things came full circle as the conversation turned to human potential and the connections between heaven and earth. And from that, it’s easy to see that Toyota’s human resource development program can be employed anywhere.

During the Leadership Development Program, we visited the birthplace of Toyota Industries Founder, Sakichi Toyoda, the “King of Japanese Inventors.” We viewed displays showing the era when Kiichiro Toyoda (Sakichi’s son) launched the automobile business and discussed the TV program Leaders, which chronicles this period, together with executives from Asia Pacific, Europe, North America, and South America.

The executives were initially calm and logical in talking about the circumstances surrounding Toyota and TBP, but when we entered the discussion on Leaders, an executive from Australia confessed that he cried while watching the show. Another from Southeast Asia shared the sentiment, saying she couldn’t stop crying for five hours. I picked out several scenes and asked the executives to express what those scenes meant to them. After a period of silence, they took a collective deep breath and started sharing, carefully choosing every word. As we spoke, we were able to touch on Toyota’s roots and collectively internalize those feelings, similar to the discussions of Theory U.

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Just as Sakichi Toyoda’s famed G-type automatic loom revolutionized productivity, the story of Toyota’s future using TBP and the Toyota Way has the power to revolutionize the way executives consider their roles. When you shift your viewpoint between the position of your supervisor’s boss and the front line of production and products, you are going back and forth between subjectivity and objectivity. This is what the TBP process enables us to do. As a result, your brain becomes like a mandala, a schematized representation of the universe.

In other words, a network develops in your brain containing production management data, customer feedback, negotiations with suppliers, and the joys and pains of your team members. And since human beings are made of body, spirit and soul, processing this kind of mixed hierarchical information is a very human way to foster human resources. Touching on all of these brings us daily opportunities for inspiration, energy replenishment, and the standardization of business activities.

Employees as part of one big family, laboriously training together, believing in their interconnectedness and independence—this is why Toyota is the ideal representative of Japanese management. The corporate philosophy of the Toyota Way has penetrated the organization in both words and reality. As employees internalize this, the organization as a whole forms a unique culture.

When global Toyota executives meet, they’re able to hold efficient meetings and focus on the task at hand with key practices:

Connect business processes with corporate philosophy
• Allow employees to internalize the importance of connecting business processes and corporate philosophy
• Elevate this understanding so it becomes a part of the organizational culture

With the above, Japanese management can surely be employed for better results globally.

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