Summary Discussion of the Toyota Mentor/Mentee Case

Table of Contents

Now that you have gone through the case example, we can get into a somewhat deeper discussion about the mentor/mentee dialogue and problem solving at Toyota.

1. How Did You Feel as You Read Through the Case?

I have taken a few hundred people through this case example in a classroom setting, and a common feeling among many participants was some exasperation that Tina and Dan’s effort to solve the problem seemed to proceed slowly. As Tina sends Dan back to look at the situation again and again, some participants start visibly shifting around in their seats. “When are they going to implement something?”

It is important to see that at Toyota the emphasis in problem solving is on Step 2 (Grasp the situation) and Step 3 (Investigate causes). If these steps are done thoroughly, then the countermeasure (Step 4) often comes quickly and almost by itself. Conversely, if the countermeasure is not yet obvious, then it usually means that more study of the situation is necessary, rather than more thinking about countermeasures. It is a classic case of greater diligence up front being more effective and, overall, quicker. To really solve a problem, you have to understand why it is happening.

Supposedly, Albert Einstein was once asked, “You have one hour to solve a problem, how do you proceed?” According to the story, his answer was something like, “I would analyze the problem for 55 minutes and in the last five minutes I would introduce my countermeasure.” The funny thing is that in our companies, we proceed in exactly the opposite manner. Within a very short time after recognizing a problem, we are proposing a variety of countermeasures in the hope that one of them will stop the problem. This is a very different approach from Toyota’s, where the goal is not to implement countermeasures but to better understand the work system so we can improve it based on what we are learning about its processes.

If we throw countermeasures at a problem or have a list of countermeasures, then what that really means is we do not know enough about the situation causing the problem. Instead of causing more chaos and complicating our analysis by introducing several countermeasures, we would be better off more carefully observing the situation before deciding and acting. We have taught our managers to think about what will solve the problem, whereas Toyota managers like Tina are thinking about how their mentees should be approaching the problem.

2. How Long Do You Think the Story in the Case Took?

I do not have information about the actual elapsed time that Tina and Dan took, but most of the story is likely to have occurred, from beginning to end, within only one shift. This is a critical point, and one that has implications for how our managers and leaders organize their work days.

If mentors want their mentees to grasp the situation thoroughly, proceed step by step, and change only one thing at a time, then the cycles from step to step should be short and follow without delay. If our managers and leaders try to fit this mentoring into their existing schedules—for example, waiting for a prescheduled weekly review to come around—it will be far too slow and mechanical. Two things will happen:

  • The situation in and around the process is likely to
  • Because it takes so long to move forward, the pressure to solve the problem increases, which causes us to skip steps and jump to

For effective PDCA, the mentor’s review of the last step should occur as soon as possible, so you can adapt based on what you find. As described in Chapter 6, progress is by rapid small steps, always adjusting to the present situation. Toyota mentors tend to insist on a short deadline for taking the next step, and to review the result of that step immediately through short, often stand-up, meetings at the process. Turnaround time is minutes or hours, with the mentor placing particular emphasis on the next step. There is no need for lengthy discussions about activities or steps beyond that, because whenever one step is taken, the situation may be new anyway.

I have observed a Toyota mentor asking the fifth question, “When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?” and when the mentee responded with, “In two days” the mentor simply repeated his question until the mentee finally said, “How about this afternoon?” To that, the mentor said, “Okay, good.

3. What Would Have Happened If Tina Had Stayed in Her Office Instead of Going to Observe the Process Herself?

Tina would very quickly have not been able to give good advice to Dan if she had relied on his reports alone, rather than going to see for herself. Going and seeing keeps the mentor closer to the real condition at the process—not so the mentor can develop a solution, which is the mentee’s responsibility, but so the mentor can use the details of that condition to appropriately guide the mentee into improvement-kata thinking and acting.

4. How Was Tina Teaching Dan?

Tina was teaching Dan by making an actual improvement in an actual process, rather than in a classroom. This kind of teaching occurs oneon-one on the shop floor, in contrast to periodic project reviews conducted in an office.

5. What Do You Think of the Countermeasure Dan Developed?

The countermeasure was: “Hold a meeting with the team members to instruct each of them on the correct procedure for installing the nuts, update the job instruction sheet to indicate positioning of the nut with the gun in the off position, and report the findings at the team leader meeting.”

Many people who have gone through this case example wanted a more fail-safe countermeasure, such as a device that would prevent the gun from spinning while the operator is locating the nut on the stud. Yet the countermeasure in the case example is acceptable at Toyota. Why? Keep in mind that Toyota’s production processes are closely managed by team leaders, who observe the process every shift and compare its operation to the work standard. If our production processes are largely unmanaged—and many of ours are—then of course we will tend to prefer fail-safe mechanisms, or “poka yoke,” as they are often called. Interestingly, Toyota does not like to add too many poka yoke devices to its processes because they increase maintenance requirements, and because Toyota wants its operators to have to think as they do their jobs.

There is also another more subtle but important point here. Sometimes in our experiments with Toyota’s mentoring routines the mentor would see an even better or more elegant solution than the mentee had developed. The mentor would then be inclined to propose his solution over what the mentee had developed.

At Toyota the goal is not necessarily to develop the very best solution today, but to develop the capability of the people in the organization to solve problems. The mentor gets no extra points for having a better idea than the mentee. Of course the solution must be good enough to serve the customer, but beyond that, having the most perfect solution now is not what Toyota is thinking about. Toyota is thinking about developing the capability of its people.

Although the mentor is often a tough customer who leads the mentee through the problem solving via questioning—like Tina in the case example—ultimately the mentee is the person who must analyze the problem and develop the countermeasure. It may be tempting, especially for inexperienced mentors, to try to lead the mentee to a different solution that the mentor has in mind. But this is not Toyotastyle mentoring. If the mentee sufficiently solves the problem in a way that meets the target condition, then the mentor must accept this.

Here is the point: How well the mentee does reflects the current capability of the organization, and if possible this should not be obscured, because we always want to understand the true current situation as clearly as possible. The solutions the mentees develop reflect the current level of capability in the organization, and that can be an important input for mentors. It may tell them what skill sets they need to work on next with their mentees. Artificially creating perfect solutions would disguise the true state of affairs and make it more difficult to understand what we need to do next to move our organization forward.

I hope you are having as much of an ah-ha moment right now as I did when this penny dropped for me.

Management does not need to bring solutions to problems. What management should bring into the organization is a kata for how people should act when faced with a situation. If the ability to apply the kata is developed in the organization correctly, then management will not need to worry about the outcomes. Conversely, if the results are not satisfactory, then it is the kata that is not being applied correctly.

6. Imagine This Approach Happening at Every Process in an Organization for Decades

In the case example, we are looking at an occasional stripped thread on one component of a product (an automobile) that has thousands of components, inside a huge company that makes many different products. In that light the effort that Tina and Dan went through could seem disproportionate, like too much effort. Yet imagine small effective steps of continuous improvement happening at every process every day for 50 years, and you begin to get a sense of how Toyota has achieved the position it holds today.

7. Caution! Good Coaching Skills Take Practice to Develop

Toyota’s mentoring is a unique coaching and teaching approach, and it takes practice (under the guidance of an experienced mentor) to develop such mentoring skills. I have seen a few pitfalls in experiments with developing mentors, including:

  • You have to be a mentee before you can In order to accompany and guide others through the improvement kata, the mentor must have sufficient experience in carrying out the improvement kata himor herself.
  • It is difficult for new mentors to adopt the right mind-set. When you go and see, your mind should be open, without preconceived notions about what could be the situation and what might be The mentor should know very well how the improvement kata proceeds (the how), but should have an open mind in regard to the content of the particular improvement effort (the what).

For example, inexperienced mentors often ask questions designed to get the mentee to adopt the mentor’s preconceived solution. This is sort of like the guessing game: “I’m thinking of a number between 1 and 10.” Unfortunately, this does not develop the mentee’s capability. Remember, the mentor is asking what the mentee is thinking in order to discern how the mentee is thinking.

  • Mentees often feel pressure to give an answer, even if they don’t know the The mentor should get himself and the mentee to the point where “I don’t know” is an acceptable and valid answer. And when “I don’t know” is the answer, then go and see!