articleLeadershipOff Topic

Jidoka, Self-awareness and the Value of a Lean Coach

By Jon Miller Updated on July 25th, 2015

A lady picking up an eggHow do you feel? It’s a simple question that isn’t always easy for some of us to answer without a reference standard. Not too long ago, I didn’t always recognize exactly how I felt. This has changed now, thanks to my transition away from the road warrior life about seven months ago. It’s not that my mind didn’t recognize sensations of being ill, tired or happy. Rather, I didn’t always acknowledge these feelings for what they were and take action. Like many busy people, these signals were ignored as I pushed to keep going with the help of naps, caffeine, meditation or simply stubborn persistence. When we lack self-awareness of overburden, it is difficult to perform a high level of value-added work.

One of the two pillars of the Toyota Production System, and therefore of lean, is making the business self-aware. This pillar is called Jidoka (自働化) in  Japanese or autonomation in English. It is the practice of endowing processes with the autonomy and intelligence to detect errors and signal for help or even stop. This originated with detect-and-stop mechanisms in the automatic loom, then in machine tools for making automotive components, spread to manual assembly lines and in theory to all work at Toyota. Jidoka is sometimes known as “stop and fix” but it is better termed “stop and call” because strictly speaking jidoka enables the process or the worker or machine to stop and call for help from the immediate team leader or supervisor. The person who arrives determines whether the process can safely be allowed to continue running or must be immediately stopped.

My Japanese sensei said about jidoka, “It is to give the workplace an action reflex, like the human autonomous nervous system.” When humans touch a hot stove, reflex action causes us to move our hand away. We don’t need to think about it. In a similar way, jidoka is giving processes the ability to sense abnormality at the local level and react, without need for the signal to travel to the brain, i.e. upper management. In machines autonomation is enabled via physical mechanisms for error detection, detection of abnormal sounds, vibrations, and temperatures that indicated a high probability of a defect in the near future, and the ability to stop. But how are those of us whose job it is to lead, manage, innovate, work with knowledge, and with other invisible and non-machine process incorporate jidoka? Wherever a process can be defined, with inputs, actions and outputs, standards can be defined and made visual. While this requires more effort in many cases than factory jidoka, it is not difficult.

At the level of executive functions, or management, jidoka is very challenging. Humans have both the reflex action to avoid pain, and the ability to make a conscious decision to avoid or endure pain. If a person were to repeatedly place their hand on a hot stove and keep it there, burning themselves, this person might be institutionalized for their own safety. Yet this is quite how many leaders of companies in transition to lean behave. They direct the organization to implement lean systems but subvert them. For example they may implement jidoka elements such as andon cords and escalation systems, yet cut back on support staff for the line. Or they may allow people ignore the calls for help. It is not enough to build in jidoka, or reflex action, into a lean system. Self-awareness of harmful behaviors that override elements of lean systems is also essential.

Self-awareness comes not only to people individually but also to organizations. As a group, people come to realize that their ways of working are dysfunctional, that corporate policies feed a negative spiral, or that the company culture contains behaviors that drag down performance. It is not enough for single individuals to realize these things. That would be like the nerve cells in one’s hand sensing “the stove is hot” but the executive function of the brain overriding the signal and holding the hand in place. Sometimes this awareness come through reflection and discussion of the group. Sometimes it comes from an external observer, or coach. Not long ago I caught up with Mr. D whose company has been practicing lean for over 10 years and they have achieved a lot, even what many would recognize as a strong lean culture. Mr. D said, “It’s hard to believe that there was a time when we didn’t do things the lean way.” This is a common sentiment. Once we become self-aware, the fact that we didn’t recognize our condition in the past becomes hard to believe. However, there was still much that Mr. D was not self-aware about. Certain elements of Mr. D’s leadership style were contrary to lean. For example, at Mr. D’s company, lean was what he said it was. While his definition was not wrong, it was shallow. By strongly signaling the boundaries of what he considered lean to be for their company, he was limiting people’s ability to explore, experiment, learn and develop the company beyond where Mr. D felt comfortable. He recognized that his sense of satisfaction and intellectual curiosity regarding lean were out of balance. It was not pleasant for Mr. D to come to grips with this, but remaining self-ignorant would have cost him far more in the long-run.

When a machine, a process, an organization or a person lacks, self-awareness or jidoka, someone must help them to implement it. Unlike the player on the field who does not always have time to stop and be self-aware, can look only at the score and not the play-by-play leading to the score, the coach can observe objectively and point out what the player cannot see. The coach helps the player to be more aware of how they are doing on the field. The coach also adds or changes practice routines designed to replace bad habits with good ones. Like all competitors striving to improve their game, lean managers must practice for themselves. The coach cannot compete for them. A good lean coach is able to recognize where the coached person needs more practice, and to oversee the practice but more importantly to help them become self-aware. This self-awareness is what I believe is the key to jidoka at the lean management level.

In the context of continuous improvement, self-awareness does not often bring us good news about ourselves. So why would a leader invite thoughts of doubts to enter their mind in the day to day course of running the business? In the modern workplace full of stress, we may feel that there is no room for recovery, and like the body that only exercises and never rests to recover, this results in breakdown and illness. This analogy is true psychologically, physically and organizationally. All three give us clear signals of what is good and what is too painful, and when we need to rest and recover. We need a safe environment in which to set standards and practice being self-aware. This is the intention of the hansei process, to create a safe environment within which to reflect and examine our mistakes, their underlying assumptions, thinking patterns biases and blindness to context. The value of the lean coach is to provide a mirror for self-reflection, encouraging self-awareness, and giving guidance on practice routines, while providing reassurance and confidence that the temporary leadership stop-and-fix will bring long-term benefits.

  1. Daniel Poliquin

    July 26, 2015 - 3:36 pm

    Allo Jon

    Thank you for the article.

    Out of curiosity what is the 2nd pillar of TPS / Lean.

    Summer regards from Montréal.


  2. Jon Miller

    July 26, 2015 - 8:39 pm

    Hi Daniel

    The 2nd pillar of TPS / Lean is jidoka / autonomation. The first pillar is just-in-time / takt-flow-pull. Sorry I did not make that clear.


  3. Katie Anderson

    August 17, 2015 - 1:55 pm

    Jon – great article. I like how you’ve connected the concepts of jidoka and self-awareness, and how as coaches we can help people connect to their self-awareness in a supportive way. A simple and supportive question to ask: “How do you feel?” Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.