10 Things the Amish Can Teach Toyota Leadership

Some of my friend have shared stories with me recently of the genchi genbutsu trips Toyota executives from Japan have been making by visiting factories overseas. On their next visit they should take a slight detour to to one of the Midwest states to relearn some basics of leading the large community that is their corporation. Specifically, they should study how the Amish live, and have lived for centuries.

First, for those unfamiliar with the Amish, a brief introduction. The Amish are a branch of the Protestant Anabaptists (“re-baptizers”) who performed baptism upon young adulthood when the individual could make an informed decision and accept personal responsibility in joining the church. In 1693 a Swiss named Jacob Amman led a group and broke off from the Mennonites to form the Amish. Since then the Amish have expanded their communities to parts of North and South America, maintaining their simple lifestyle almost unchanged. What things can the Amish teach Toyota about management?

1. Continuity. For over 300 years the Amish community have maintained their way of life with only minor adjustments due to technological advances, relocation to new continents or the change of governments of the countries that surrounding their communities. Toyota has been practicing their way of working for only about 70 years and they are facing some serious challenges as they expand globally and technologically. How did the Amish do it? There’s more to it than the following short list of commonalities with Toyota, but it is a good start.

2. Adherence to values. The Amish believe strongly in conforming to their own community and the values they hold, to the point that they have removed themselves from the society around them, and prevailing technological advances. Around 1919 the Amish made a decision not to connect to the electrical grid or to have electricity in their homes. Although this technological innovation would have made their lives easier in many ways, it went against their values and principles, and these beliefs were more important to them than to try out the latest technology for the sake of convenience or conformity. There is a parallel here to Toyota’s traditionally slow and cautious adoption of new technologies, for reasons of frugality and more than anything else, and this is one of many values Toyota leadership can relearn from the Amish.

3. Humility. Frowning upon pride in accomplishment. Bearded faces without mustaches. Children’s dolls without faces. Clothes without buttons. Homes without adornment. Singing without instruments. The well-being of the group before that of the individual. Respect for elders, God, the community and the church. Worship in homes, not in churches. Plain clothes. Gentleness. Thrift. Peace.

4. Simplicity. Henry Ford took away the horse, took away the buggy whip, but like the Amish he stuck with black. Inevitably, along came color. The leaders of General Motors introduced variety, planned obsolescence, the model year. When we changed the colors of our motorized wagons from black to a variety of other colors, how much did this improve our lives? Most of us do not see the color of the car we are driving, nor take notice of the vehicles around us. Color has increased complexity and inventories in the supply chain, as well as added cost to the product. At one time Toyota believed in value for cost more than variety, style and functionality. They could relearn this from the Amish.

5. Membership by informed choice. One of the things that sets a religious cult apart from an intentionally religious community is that adults can make an informed choice to be a part of that community. Many Amish communities allow a period of a year or two when teenagers dress like the rest of society, drink alcohol, listen to music or otherwise taste the “English” (non-Amish) way of life. This is allowed so that the young adults can make an informed choice to leave this behind forever when joining the Amish community, or not to join the Amish community. For a community to succeeding in strengthening itself and persisting, a shared purpose is essential, and this implies participation or membership by choice. Toyota has known this and placed value on various “voluntary” training, continuous improvement, community and team-building. The definition of voluntary (unpaid) participation in kaizen activity has been questioned in the courts at times, and by its nature loyalty to an employer is not as strong as to a community, religion or family and therefore this is one area where the Toyota leadership can strengthen by learning from the Amish.

6. Personal responsibility for the group. In the developed world where individual rights and individual prosperity are touted above individual responsibility, the notion of the individual being responsible for the entire group may be hard to fathom. Frankly in this one area alone the Toyota leadership could do an in-depth study. Japanese society has traditionally held individual and collective responsibility in high regard, but this too is eroding with other traditional values. What personal responsibility for the group means in practice is that when another member does something harmful, you are responsible. When you do something harmful to yourself, you are harming the others.

When you do something harmful, your family, friends, or loved ones are equally responsible for your transgression. Observed at company such as Toyota, a PhD might call this something fancy like “built-in redundancy in management accountability”. In reality it is far simpler yet so inscrutable to so many of us.

7. Mutual assistance. The practice of helping each other out within the Amish community extends beyond sharing labor or other resources: they provide many of the social services we take for granted as tax paying citizens. The Amish have no nursing homes, social security, Medicare or Medicaid. The family and community units take care of these things. In fact the Amish believe that if their community should provide many government programs, and the right to take care of their own and not to pay self-employment tax (if self-employed) was given to them by the U.S. government. Not only the spirit but the degree to which the Amish put this belief into practice can be a lesson to Toyota leadership.

8. Benefiting the community. The Amish value the growth and welfare of their community above being part of the larger modern world. That is an informed choice that Amish young adults are asked to make when deciding to join the community. Toyota has very clear and deep values stressing long-term purpose as welfare of society through making things. When growth or profit numbers became the purpose rather than a byproduct of a successful and well-planned strategy, Toyota as a company somewhat lost their way. No longer blinded by the brightness of their own success, and with a little help from the Amish, they will find their way back.

9. Plan slowly, do it quickly. If we were to teach the Amish about hoshin kanri (Japanese for policy deployment or goal alignment) they would probably listen patiently and wonder why we “English” (non-Amish) needed to rely on such fancy words to pull together to accomplish a common goal. Rome wasn’t built in a day. But who needs another Rome? What you need if you are a new Amish family is a barn. And the Amish can build a barn in just one day. Bring the community together to frame the barn in the morning, share a home cooked meal for lunch, and finish the siding and roof before dinner. If our governments could do anything with half of the clarity of purpose, cooperation, and quality of cooking we could accomplish great things. On their way back from visiting the newer Mississippi and Texas factories the Toyota leaders should benchmark the Amish how many barns they build without a firm order.

10. Sustainability. The Amish have a fairly small carbon footprint. Although some Amish use natural gas, and it is true that some Amish sects go so far as to drive cars and have electricity in their homes, they do not have SUV, jet away on vacations, run air conditioners, consume mostly processed foods, or buy home appliances or clothes manufactured overseas in polluting factories and which are shipped to Stateside retail warehouses in containers. They grow their own food, make their own clothes, build their own toys, go to sleep early and find joy in family, community and work. Toyota has as part of their long-term business plan the development of automobiles that actually make the environment cleaner, use a sustainable form of energy, and can avoid accidents. I have seen the future: it has four legs, runs on grass and rhymes with source.

The way the Amish live, serve their community and practice their faith is without a doubt both humbling and inspiring. But there is one thing that will be deeply puzzling to the Toyota executives studying the Amish: over the past few hundred years the Amish have not pursued continuous improvement, innovation or progress which the English (non-Amish) hold so dear. It is true that some groups of Amish have modernized to varying degrees, benefiting from power tools (so long as they are not connected to the electrical grid). If a society such as the Amish can thrive for hundreds of years by adhering to certain values, who is to say that we who belong to empires, nations or corporations rising and falling rapidly due to technological progress, process innovations or incremental improvement, are the more advanced? Toyota touts continuous improvement and respect for people as their two philosophical pillars. Perhaps the Amish are telling us that one of the two is optional.

4 Comments

  1. Mike

    March 19, 2009 - 12:53 pm

    I’m afraid that if you were to venture into any Wal-Mart Supercenter or Sam’s Club in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, or Pennsylvania upon any Saturday you would see many Amish purchasing everything from food to clothing. Many “big box” retailers in those areas have special (sometimes covered) parking areas for the horses and buggies.
    Amish actually do practice continuous improvement. They change, but very slowly. For example, they now comply with state laws requiring the orange slow-moving-vehicle triangle on their buggies; they comply with health department “3 sink” rules and electrical use in any business they run which sells food; often use propane heaters in their buggies; often carry and use cell phones; and they now not only use self-generated electricity, they manufacture electric heaters.
    In no way are they telling us that continuous improvement is somehow optional. We just have to look more closely to understand how they are improving. The Amish communities are in constant danger of dwindling to nothing with each new generation and they are making changes in order to keep their communities viable.

  2. Jon Miller

    March 19, 2009 - 1:02 pm

    Hi Mike,
    You have a good point. There are various degrees of orthodoxy among the Amish. I’ve ridden in pick up trucks driven by an Amish business owner, and been to Old Order communities that are as conservative as the article above, if not more. I am sure each generation continuously improves their skills, and by necessity or choice they adopt technologies – but I would still argue that continuous improvement is not one of their basic tenets of faith.

  3. Dale Savage

    May 4, 2009 - 9:51 am

    I am a part of an Anabaptist church community similar to the Amish. We are Old Order Brethren (also known as German Baptists). We do not have any direct organizational connection to the Amish but we are spiritual cousins and have much in common, including the way we dress and the general principles that effect our lifestyle choices.
    In one sense, we do not practice continuous improvement for the sake of continuous improvement. We do not feel that we need to improve those aspects that relate specifically to our faith and principles. That is why we do not participate in many facetes of general society or own many gadgets that others consider necessities. That is why if you came to one of our church meetings (services) today, it would be the same as they were 150 years ago. We have accepted only those items which are seen as no longer a threat to the principles of our Christian faith – although that judgment does vary according to our different fellowships. We appreciate what has been given to us by our forefathers and desire to preserve it for future generations.
    Some changes have taken place in our communities. Are these improvements? The changes that are mentioned in the above response may be seen as improvements from the modern perspective but by many of us they are seen as digressions that are moving the groups that have adopted them closer to the mainstream and away from the simplicity that most of us value. Change for the sake of change does not represent continuous improvement.
    You may wonder how I am posting this response. My work is as a continuous improvement administrator at an automobile parts supplier. I use the computer at work but I do not own a computer and would never allow one in my home. This may seem inconsistent, but these are the kinds of choices we “plain people” have to make with regard to how we relate to the society in which we live.

  4. sawyer wolfe

    August 24, 2011 - 11:41 pm

    I stumbled upon this article researching toyota. There are different “sects” if you will of amish as there in all other religions. One group of amish is so strict to the point of almost being in poverty and yet others in other areas allow the use of vehicles and electricity and even phones. It depends on the local amish as to how strict they are. I have two amish friends I met and both are nothing like how hollywood portrays the amish on tv. never judge a book by its cover:) great article by the way.