Developing Teams at Toyota: Not a One-Minute Proposition

One surprise I had when I was visiting the Hebron operation was the frequent reference to “situational leadership” that they had learned from Ken Blanchard, famed author of The One-Minute Manager. This was only one of a number of leadership models they had learned from, but it at first struck me as incongruous with the Toyota philosophy. They showed me an evolutionary model of high-performance work teams that they had gotten from a Blanchard workshop that helped them think about the gradual process of developing work teams.

This prompted me to read The One Minute Manager Builds High Performing Teams (Blanchard, Carew, and Parisi-Carew, 2000). The article is similar to others in the “One Minute Manager” series. The basic premise is that groups have to develop over time and cannot jump from a bunch of individuals to a high performing team immediately. Blanchard describes four stages of team development:

Stage 1: Orientation. The group needs strong direction from the leader and must understand the basic mission, rules of engagement, and tools the members will use.

Stage 2: Dissatisfaction. The group goes to work, which is a lot less fun than talking about great visions of success, and the members discover it is harder than they thought to work as a team. In this stage, they continue to need strong direction (structure) from the leader but also need a lot of social support to get through the tough social dynamics they do not understand.

Stage 3: Integration. The group starts to develop a clearer picture of the roles of various team members and begins to exert control over team processes. The challenge is for the group to learn about roles, goals, norms, and team structure. The leader does not have to provide much task direction, but the team still needs a lot of social support.

Stage 4: Production. The group puts it all together and is functioning as a high-performing team with little task support or social support from the leader.

It was clear to me that what Toyota was doing with this simple model was combining TPS thinking with the situational leadership model into something new and different and much more powerful. The article by Blanchard et al. focuses on people coming together in task forces and holding meetings. This is what I normally think of as temporary problem-solving groups. Toyota was building work teams that were doing finely tuned work every day in addition to making improvements to the work process as problem-solving groups. It was much more than task force meetings.

Combining the concepts of situational leadership with the highly evolved work processes of TPS led to something new that you could not teach in one minute. In fact, in Blanchard’s article, one of his stages seems to happen in a few meetings, such as stage 3, Integration, which can even happen in even one well-facilitated meeting. Hebron was taking three years to get to stage 4. Were they stuck in stage 3 with slow managers and mentally inferior workers? Quite the contrary. As we saw earlier in the article, TPS is based on a particularly challenging technical process—the ideal of one-piece flow. Flow involves extremely tight coordination between each step in the process and this coordination helps build effective work teams.

Illustrates the effects of flow on team functioning. In the top half, we have traditional batch-and-queue manufacturing. Each worker is doing his or her job at his or her own pace and building to inventory—in this case overproducing and creating waste. Under this system, the next operator in the process is oblivious to any problems occurring upstream or downstream. As long as there is inventory of incoming parts and the workers are allowed to build up as many parts as they want in the outbound queue, they can work happily along, regardless of what their associates are doing. Even if a worker produces a defect, it may not be caught in this shift and operators in the next shift can worry about it. If the next worker catches it, he or she can just put it aside and take a good part from the large pile of inventory. The person sitting down at Station C has the good job and probably has waited years to get that cushy job.

Now the one-minute manager comes along and says it’s time to become a team. (You can substitute for Blanchard any team-building program you may have experienced.) So everyone piles into the conference room to work on improving productivity. What is likely to happen is that the team will focus on reducing the amount of time it takes to perform the value-added processes, the work they perform, or work on creature comforts like the lighting and putting in a water cooler. In the batch-and-queue process, the workers work individually, so it is natural that they focus only on their individual tasks.

Now let’s consider the case of a TPS expert coming in and analyzing the batch-and-queue operation . The expert would immediately observe that there is no flow and that there is a great deal of waste. The first task of the TPS expert might be to improve the flow and eliminate most of the inventory that is getting in the way of tying together operations. The squares are kanban squares: as long as there is a piece in the square, stop building. The expert would want the flexibility of staffing the cell with one, two, or three people, depending on the demand, so eventually all team members will need to learn every job and rotate. To reduce the number of people in the cell and have each person doing multiple jobs, the expert must get rid of the cushy chair. You can’t have workers stopping and sitting in the chair. What you need is a team creating value for customers, doing only what needs to be done. We can see the “dissatisfaction” stage coming up fast and furious from that worker who lost the chair. In addition, there may be more dissatisfaction when the new flow reveals that the work can be done using two workers, not three.

In fact, the very stages described by Blanchard apply nicely to the process of implementing TPS and work teams, as the Toyota service parts management team had learned, though the process takes years and not minutes. When the service parts operation was set up, apart from a small group of leaders who had experience with TPS, the concepts were all new to the recently hired associates. In stage 1, the leadership group explained the vision, orienting team members, and did various simulations, which were fun. Morale was high. The team members got some awareness training in TPS, but could not really understand it. At this point, the leadership group had to be very directive.

As the team slowly ramped up production under management’s direction, there were natural problems and setbacks. Stage 2 kicked in and morale went down a bit. The team needed a lot of social support from the group leaders, along with continued direction. However, unlike Blanchard’s model, the group leaders could not focus only on social support and stop being directive, especially since they were still removing waste and making jobs more interdependent. So a combination of directiveness and social support was still needed while associates removed waste and contributed new ideas to improve the technical process.

After three years, the group leaders finally felt the associates had matured to the point that, in some home positions, they could assign some associates to team leader roles and move the group toward being more self-directed. They were in Blanchard’s stage 3. The move toward stage 4 is continuing to evolve over years.

The way I see it, the difference between the one-minute version of situational leadership and the Toyota version is the difference between holding meetings with action items and actually working as a team in a tightly coordinated, complex work system. The individuals in the coordinated system are executing standard operating procedures and there is a need for tight synchronization across associates to get the job done right. This type of team building does not happen in a conference room across a few well-facilitated meetings.