Achieving kaizen depends on the knowledge and skill of every employee. Thus, writes Rother, “the primary task of...managers and leaders does not revolve around improvement per se, but around increasing the improvement capability of people.”
For decades, Toyota employees, using the scientific method and iterative problem-solving approach inherent in their system, were engaged in a constant cycle of finding and solving problems, developing and testing new ideas, implementing and codifying new solutions and routines, then starting all over again. Versions of this problem-solving process were used at all levels of the company to improve everything from manufacturing to strategic planning. Every Toyota employee was engaged in a constant quest for what Matthew E. May dubbed “the elegant solution” in his book of the same name (The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation [Free Press, 2007]). May defines this solution as “one in which the optimal or desired effect is achieved with the least amount of effort.”
Of course, many of these techniques and methods have long been known, and long been applied in piecemeal and ineffective ways. To explain how managers can apply them more effectively, John Shook, who worked at Toyota for 10 years, has written Managing to Learn: Using the A3 Management Process to Solve Problems, Gain Agreement, Mentor, and Lead. This slim, illustrated guidebook offers a worm’s-eye view of A3 diagrams. (An A3 diagram is a single-page document, roughly 11 by 17 inches, that aims to capture a snapshot of an individual process problem and its recommended solution.) “Every issue an organization faces can and should be captured on a single sheet of paper,” writes Shook. “This enables everyone touching the issue to see through the same lens.”
Shook explains the centrality of employee development by following the story of a single employee and his supervisor — with the perspective of each following two parallel columns on every page — as they map out the solution to a single problem, translating production documents from Japanese to English to support the expansion of Acme Manufacturing, a fictional Japanese company’s U.S. operations. By focusing in minute detail on the mapping of a single problem, he shows how a seemingly mundane process can be fraught with errors, delays, and cost overruns that have system-wide implications, and how a deep understanding of the problem and its causes eventually leads to resolution. He also shows how patient coaching by the supervisor not only helps resolve the problem, but teaches his charge to be a better analyst.
The Deming Connection
The kaizen philosophy, Toyota production system, and similar methods are all closely linked to the work of W. Edwards Deming, the statistician who came to be known as a leading management guru and paved the way for the ascendancy of quality as a management priority. (Actually, it is difficult to tease out cause and effect in the relationship between Deming and Toyota; they learned from each other over the course of many years.) Deming’s key insight — a deceptively simple yet profound statistical observation about how processes work — offers one of the most practical and important insights into the role that employees play in improving processes and developing a systems approach to organizations.
Deming, who also advised Ford, General Motors, and many other Western companies, argued that the predictability and quality of all processes are subject to two distinct causes of variation: special causes, which are generally due to a glitch in the system that can be fairly easily fixed, like a worn part on a machine; and common causes, which are more complex and difficult to isolate because they are systemic. For instance, product defects caused by the use of poor-quality materials in manufacturing might be traced back to a purchasing policy or a cost-cutting mandate from accounting or inadequate storage that causes otherwise good-quality materials to warp or rust. Treating a systemic problem as though it is a one-time glitch not only makes it less likely that the root cause will be found and fixed, but can cause even bigger problems going forward.