Tips for Lean Managers

In Defense of Mr. Rogers

By Jon Miller Updated on May 11th, 2017

I’ve been enjoying Bill Waddell’s tough-and-straight postings lately on
the Evolving Excellence blog. I had to stop and think awhile after reading last week’s posting titled Ohno, Shingo and Bobby Knight.

I have a lot of respect for Fred Rogers, Taiichi Ohno, Shigeo Shingo, and Bobby Knight. There are things I would like and dislike about working under any of these men. Where would I fall under Fred Rogers-Bobby Knight continuum? Somewhere in between, but on the side of Mr. Rogers, I imagine. So Bill’s statement about Mr. Rogers that Ohno, Shingo and the early Ford team would have “eaten him alive” caught my attention.

I think the essence of what Bill is saying is that it’s not about being nice, it’s about giving your team game even if it means some feelings get hurt. Bill makes some important observations.

“But where people really add value in manufacturing is when they can make the right ad hoc decisions in the midst of a rapidly changing shop floor.”

I agree that this ability is important in basketball games and other highly changeable environments. However, the last thing I think of when I recall a Toyota shop floor is rapid change. If anything it is the overwhelming sense of calm, stability, and rhythm that is impressive. There is a lot of hard work that goes into building and maintaining this, but it feels more like making 1,000 consecutive free throw shots rather than squaring off against an active opposing team.

Another one of Mr. Ohno’s lesser known sayings is “handan saseruna” or “don’t have them make decisions”. What he meant by this was that everything about the job should be so well planned, the process so well laid out, and workers so well trained that there was no question of what to do. I agree with Bill’s assessment that Bobby Knight’s team was coached in a similar way.

One distinction bill draws between traditional and Lean manufacturing is that the former has to take time outs to call plays in the last minutes of the game while Lean manufacturing, like Mr. Knight’s team, doesn’t require this.

The andon light is the “time out” on the Toyota shop floor. When the cord is pulled, the “captain” or team leader is called over. The line continues to run while the team leaders sees to the problem. He is like the captain of the basketball team calling a play. If the issue is resolved the line continues to run. If the moving line reaches the set position before the problem is solved, the line stops and the “coach” (manager or engineer) is called to fix the problem.

They define the essence of managing people in a lean environment” Bill writes after describing the styles of Ohno, Shingo, and Knight. I think it is important to remember that none of these men managed people, as such, in a Lean environment (with the possible exception of Bobby Knight – I don’t know enough about basketball teams to say if the Hoosiers under Knight were Lean).

Shingo was a consultant to Toyota whose job was to help people change. He did not have direct management responsibility over people on a day to day basis. Rather he was an external change agent. The expectations and requirements for someone who is an occasional presence in the factory (consultant) and an everyday presence (manager or leader) is somewhat different.

Taiichi Ohno spearheaded the Lean transformation at Toyota with Shingo’s help. He certainly had direct reports at one point in his career at Toyota but he was much more of a guru and internal consultant figure than a manager of people by the time Toyota was in a condition we would recognize as Lean.

Bill writes that Shingo didn’t subscribe to the view that “there’s no such thing as a stupid question”. I’ve been told I was stupid and I’ve heard that said to a lot of people by Japanese consultants. It’s important to remember that the adage about there being no stupid questions ends with “except the one left unasked”.

With the goal of developing a team of independent thinkers and problem solvers, I haven’t found a better way than the Socratic method of asking people to think for themselves than to respond to a “stupid” question with a series of questions that makes the questioner realize their misconception.

One of my Japanese teachers shouted a lot while he was teaching Americans about kaizen. He explained to me that there is a difference between shouting in anger and scolding. One is result of a loss of control over your emotions while the other is a deliberate raising of the temperature to make it clear that there is a lesson to be learned. You shout in anger because you care about yourself, you scold because you care about others.
Taiichi Ohno certainly terrified people. He told his students that he was scolding them. No doubt he was probably pretty angry some of the time. Probably angry at himself for not getting people to understand what he was teaching. That’s human nature.
I lived for several years in Bloomington, Indiana and I heard of a professor who moved from San Francisco and bought Bobby Knight’s old house about dents in the walls where Mr. Knight threw hammers after losing basketball games. This may be an urban legend, but his temper was not. There is no room in a civil society today for managers who behave like Mr. Knight, lacking a public display of respect, regardless of their performance record.

The point is that lean manufacturing is not about being paternalistic or ‘nice’ to people in a condescending manner. All management, lean or otherwise, is about being direct and operating by the golden rule.

The Golden Rule, I’ll remind the reader, is to treat others the way you want to be treated, what some call mutual respect. Bill continues:

Treating people with respect is not the key to lean. It is the basic cost of entry that must be paid before you are even allowed to start working on how to empower and energize people to become part of the lean effort.

The question I struggle with when coaching organizational change is “How do people pay this cost of entry if they don’t have a mutual respect bank account to draw from?” Gemba is not the “Mr. Rogers” team of consultants who teach managers how to interact with people through mutual respect. Frankly, most companies that come to us who are serious about Lean transformation do not have the time it takes for this. Many times the manager who can not pay Bill’s “basic cost of entry” finds that their choice is to change immediately or find employment elsewhere. The latter option is good for the company, but fails to address the issue of improving people.

Bill writes “Treating people with respect and listening to what they have to say about their jobs is not a cornerstone of lean manufacturing. It is a cornerstone of living in a civilized society.”

So how do we go about developing this respect between people? I’ve always said that humility is the key. This is a misunderstood word, and not one that is a defining characteristic of American culture. There is an interesting manifesto by Ira Williams titled Speak Softly at a site called Change This. Download the PDF for some deep thoughts on humility.

Taiichi Ohno spends the first two chapters of his book Workplace Management calling on managers and leaders to have humility when leading people through change. The first chapter is titled “The Wise Mend Their Ways”. He wrote this book later in his career. He was looking back and likely had the hindsight of what worked for him and what didn’t during his career as a teacher and manager of Lean.

Thank you Bill for bringing a new perspective to this key issue and for making me think.

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