Want Respect for People? Grow the “Us” – Part 1

Want Respect for People? Grow the “Us” – Part 1

Boss vs. Leader

In a previous post, “Who Does the Thinking Around Here Anyway?”, I spent time describing what is meant by the term “production system” as in the Toyota Production System. A “production system” is a system for the “creation of value” – of value to another human being. And a “system” is composed of “interacting or interdependent component parts”. Not independent component parts, but “interacting or interdependent component parts”. If one thing changes, many things may, and probably will, change. The key question then becomes; will the overall change be good or bad for the system as a whole? (Any bad flashbacks running through your head right now?)

I then spent some time describing what constitutes these “interacting or interdependent component parts”. There are boundless inanimate parts in a typical “production system”, and these are the ones we usually think of when we think of “production”. Machines, raw materials, in-process materials, inventory, analog and digital displays, carts, storage bins, tables, schedules, work instructions, other paper, more paper, etc., etc. But are these really the most important parts?


As I stated in that previous post:

“All output and change in a “production system” can only occur through human action. A “production system” is defined by the decisions that are made by the people within that system. Not some of the people – all of the people. All the parts that think, interacting with all the other parts that think. The “who”.

The “who” are the “interacting or interdependent component parts” that really matter. And the “who” – all the parts that think – range from the CEO to the office workers, to the production floor, to the utilities staff, to the maintenance crew, to the truck drivers, to the cafeteria workers, to the people that clean the offices and floors at night – everyone. And any one of these “who” can have an impact on the overall performance of this “production system”. Any one!

As Taiichi Ohno said:

“The Toyota style is not to create results by working hard. It is a system that says there is no limit to people’s creativity.  People don’t go to Toyota to ‘work’ they go there to ‘think.”

But within most organizations, there is an ingrained problem. Actually, it is not so much a “problem” as it is a natural phenomenon based on human instinct. But it can become a problem within a “production system” that has a common purpose – the creation of value for a customer. And that natural phenomenon is the tendency of humans to mentally break down the collective concept of the “who” into two distinct subcategories – “Us” and “Them”.

I became aware of this “us” and “them” dichotomy early in my career. I can’t remember if this encounter took place while I was a Co-op student while still in college or during my first job as Research Engineer after graduation. But the discussion I had with an extrusion operator in a synthetic fiber manufacturing plant is burned into my memory.

The discussion took place in a dimly lit top floor of a multi-line extrusion operation. I was wandering around trying to understand how all of these complex processes actually worked when I ran into an operator who was there to check some gauges. I explained that I was from the Research Department and was new and I had a lot of questions and could he help me out. And, boy, did he help me out. I learned more about how things actually work during that fairly brief discussion than I had learned up to that point from my colleagues in Research.

But the part that stuck in my mind was his comment at the end of our discussion after I thanked him for his help. “You know”, he said, “we have a lot of Process Engineers running around here trying to solve problems. They take a lot of measurements and occasionally ask us to change some things. But they never ask us what we think. If only they would ask us, we could help. But they never do”.

I can still see this guy, leaning against an insulated pipe or something, as he told me this. It has stuck with me all these years. I never ran into him again (this was a very large plant) but he had a very large impact on me – and I’m sure he never knew it. It was my first experience with Genchi Gembutsu even though it would be decades before I would actually hear those words. But it stuck.

From that point on I try to always ask them what they think – and listen. When that happens, we magically all become “us”. (Most of the time, anyway).

But the Japanese had understood these concepts for generations. Here is an excerpt from a speech given by Konosuke Matsushita, President of Panasonic, to a group of Western businessmen doing a tour of Japan in 1979:

“We are going to win and the industrial West is going to lose out: there’s nothing much you can do about it, because the reasons for your failure are within yourselves. Your firms are built on the Taylor model; even worse, so are your heads. With your bosses doing the thinking while the workers wield the screwdrivers, you’re convinced deep down that this is the right way to run a business.

For you, the essence of management is getting the ideas out of the heads of bosses and into the hands of labor. We are beyond the Taylor model. Business, we know, is now so complex and difficult, the survival of firms so hazardous in an environment increasingly unpredictable, competitive, and fraught with danger that their continued existence depends on the day-to-day mobilization of every ounce of intelligence.

For us, the core of management is precisely this art of mobilizing and pulling together the intellectual resources of all employees in the service of the firm. We know that the intelligence of a handful of technocrats, however brilliant and smart they may be, is no longer enough. Only by drawing on the combined brain power of all its employees can a firm face up to the turbulence and constraints of today’s environment.”

Needless to say, these Western businessmen probably didn’t get it at that time. But they would “get it” in just a few years’ time as JIT/TPS began to enter the Western business world.

I know that I didn’t fully get it until I ran across “JIT” in the late 1980’s. And that’s when the real fun began! The “who” became “us” and “they” began to fade off into the sunset.

To be continued…..

2 thoughts on “Want Respect for People? Grow the “Us” – Part 1

  1. “a “system” is composed of “interacting or interdependent component parts”. You talked about inventory — and how to get rid of it — in your last column. I’ve seen some real disasters in doing this when it is not planned out such that all interacting and interdependent consequences are considered. For instance, we had people in my company talking about changing our “supplier firm” terms from 90 days to 14 days just with the issuance of a supplier letter. Instead, we took on the heavy lifting and it took seven years of it to get our supply chain ready for this. Doing it just based on letter would have added an unbelievable amount of supplier pre-built safety stock which would have added more time to our overall order fulfillment. There is a lot of thinking, planning, educating and work required to reduce inventory.

    1. We can know that a system is composed of “interacting or interdependent component parts”. But what we almost always do not know is how all those interdependent parts actually interact with each other. We may know some of the interactions (or at least we think we do) but we almost never know all the interactions. (That’s why “firefighting” can be a full-time job for some people). All the planning in the world will only get you so far since you will never understand all the interactions. So you were absolutely correct in scraping the idea of issuing an edict to go from 90 days to 14 days. It would have been a disaster.

      The way you did approach the task at hand makes all the sense in the world. You used a “trial and error” approach to solving the problem. Ohno admits that Toyota developed TPS through a multi-decade application of “trial and error”. Today we are a little more sophisticated and call this approach “Plan-Do-Check-Act” or PDCA. Mike Rother has another even more sophisticated version which he calls “Kata”. But it works whatever you call it. It is all “kaizen” in one form or another.

      I think you are referring to my last post where I described a more “exciting” or “scary” approach to reducing lead times by eliminating inventory in one fell swoop (or almost anyway). But this is a more specialized case – I would never try this for an entire company all at once. I was talking about taking a single product family or value stream and creating a manufacturing cell where all equipment and workstations are physically moved to be side-by-side in one place – with little or no inventory between workstations. It is “scary” and/or “exciting” (you choose) but it works. You would then repeat this cell by cell until the entire company (or at least the key areas) are covered.

      George Koenigsaecker describes how he did this in great detail with “Jake Brake” back in 1986 in a chapter of the Jeff Liker book “Becoming Lean”. I’ve done it dozens of times and am very comfortable with it. But it’s not for everybody. I plan to cover this in more detail in a future post.

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