The Practice of Learning

January 17, 2010 - Tags:

Learning requires optimism and the spirit to take up challenges. The Toyota Way document states that: “We accept the challenges with a creative spirit and the courage to realize our own dreams without losing drive or energy. We approach our work vigorously, with optimism and a sincere belief in the value of our contribution.” It challenges its supply chain partners in a similar way and expects to be challenged by them.

Toyota provides a system where thinking pervades the organization. Moreover, Toyota has spread these ideas throughout its supply chain in its leadership role. Its approach to learning conforms to the theory of learning that has been referenced in this book and can be described as follows:

Create awareness. Unless problems are seen, they will not be solved. The effort at raising awareness involves systems to report ideas, problems, deviations, and potential issues to one’s direct contact with no delay.

Establish capability. Unless a person is capable of solving a problem that might arise within the system boundaries set for him or her, that person will be unable to contribute to solving the problem or for recognizing the need for specialized help.

Make action protocols. Actions have to be taken within a set of constraints and conform to certain standards. Doing so will help in the identification of the relationship between action and results. It will help codify the knowledge for future use. It will help to engender communication using the same language, format, and similar content.

Generate system-level awareness. As more and more experience is obtained at solving problems, greater awareness needs to be instilled about other areas that might be affected or that might impact one’s own performance.

Produce the ability to teach. As more and more system-level awareness and experience accumulates, the capability to teach others about these methods needs to be created.

The practicality of Toyota’s approach to learning is not only in establishing rules but also in translating thoughts to action. Managers at Toyota are taught that problems by themselves are frustrating unless people are shown a way to solve them. The problem must be well defined, the goals measurable, and the problem solvable in a given time with given resources. Likewise, learning should be accomplished systematically. That part of the Toyota Way emphasizes the practicality of making learning possible. Only by experimenting and scientifically understanding the dynamics involved can one master the supply chain.

In addition to learning through experimentation, Toyota learns vicariously, using secondhand sources and anything else it can lay its hands on. The Toyota Way document states, “We search for outstanding ideas inside the company and in the larger business community, regardless of their authorship, and investigate them thoroughly. Benchmarking is used to measure Toyota’s accomplishments against those of other leading companies.” And: “We continue to search for breakthroughs, refusing to be restrained by precedent or taboo.”

Toyota realizes that mastering thinking for the long term is important. How does one accomplish goal setting in the long run? It is easy to have small successes if learning and problem solving as described previously are accomplished; however, it is very difficult to measure success and failure in the long run. Even if an overall direction is available, the goals might seem far away and irrelevant unless these ideas are applied over the long run. That keeps the focus on creating value and moves attention away from action to planning. Once a “long-term” problem has been identified, all the steps mentioned previously should be used to ensure that employees remain targeted and motivated. Therefore, it is important to break up the goal into targets.26 Make it specific. Make people capable. Take action systematically. Think systemwide after each step. Pass on the learning. Make sure that each target is achievable with the available resources within the allowed time. For example, productivity improvement is a long-run goal. Simply exhorting employees to be more productive not only does not lead to results but it also results in frustration. Asking managers to reduce costs or improve productivity is too general a directive. The Toyota method emphasizes that targets be as specific as possible. If the manager or worker cannot control cost, then the endeavor will not be motivating. Therefore, the target has to be meaningful and focused. With regard to productivity, Toyota has many long-term goals. For example, Toyota sets a measure of hours of labor per car. A potential target would be: make labor per car 5 percent better.

Internal competition is used to set standards and compare achievable improvements. The target is made more specific by classifying labor into different categories: (1) labor actually making the product, (2) labor team leaders (supervisory), (3) maintenance, (4) accountants and purchasing, and so on. Different targets are set for different classifications.