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Toyota’s Mentor/Mentee Case Example

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The best way to explain Toyota’s mentor/mentee teaching approach is to show it in action. The following case example provides a close look at a Toyota-style mentor/mentee dialogue. Simultaneously, it also does a good job of demonstrating how Toyota thinks about problem solving, which is important for deepening our understanding of the improvement kata. The case example is similar to one that was used to help teach problem solving at Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky, factory, although this one is greatly expanded.

Keep in mind that this case is just one example of a Toyota mentor/mentee dialogue. Although these dialogues typically mirror the pattern of the improvement kata in some way, they can take on a variety of forms depending on the situation. The objective here is not to give you a mechanical script for a Toyota mentor/mentee dialogue, but to give you some a sense for the pattern, or routine, and thinking inherent in the coaching kata.

Setup

Start by taking a look at the five-step problem-solving approach in Figure 8-4, called “Practical Problem Solving,” which is commonly used at Toyota. This is problem solving as applied in everyday operations. I will refer to these problem-solving steps as we go through the case example.

Figure 8-4. The problem-solving approach used in the case example

As you can see from the five steps, there is no magic in this problem-solving approach. The basic steps are well known and similar to what is described in many problem-solving books and training courses. Most managers and engineers I meet have already had some kind of problem-solving training and even still have the course documentation on their office bookshelf. Yet I find almost no one following the problem-solving approach properly. This is a good example of how ineffective classroom training alone is for changing our behavior.

Figure 8-5. A funnel to illustrate the “point of cause” concept

Within the Practical Problem-Solving approach, Toyota often uses a funnel to illustrate the “point of cause” concept, which is mentioned under Step 2, Grasp the Situation (Figure 8-5). This concept may have arisen because Toyota vehicle assembly factories have long assembly lines. The idea is that when you become aware of a problem, you then need to trace it back up the line or value stream until you find the point where the cause may lie. Try not to go into cause investigation until you think you have found this point.

Cast of Characters

The mentor/mentee case example takes place in a section of the final vehicle assembly line, called the “trim line,” at a Toyota assembly plant. The people noted in the Cast of Characters in Figure 8-6 are involved.

Figure 8-6. Persons involved in the case example

Figure 8-7. Case example organization structure

The organization looks as diagrammed in Figure 8-7, which is a typical organization structure at a Toyota assembly plant production line. This is the same Toyota line-organization structure that is mentioned in Chapter 7.

How to Read the Case

In this case you take on the role of the mentor—the Coach—whose task it is to teach the improvement kata. Your character is Tina, the group leader, and your mentees are the five team leaders: Dan, Judy, Jeff, Bob, and Mary.

The case has 11 chapters. After Chapter 1, each chapter is presented as a unit consisting of a situation (in a box) and a corresponding analysis of Tina’s mentoring behaviors. Proceed through the case as follows:

  1. Read the situation in the
  2. Then read the analysis of Tina’s mentoring behavior for that chapter, where I will point out several aspects of the coaching
  3. Wherever you are asked the question If you were Tina what would you do next?, write your response to this question on a piece of paper before moving

Summary Discussion

At the end of the case there is a summary discussion of key points on the subject of mentor/mentee dialogue and Toyota-style problem solving.

BEGIN HERE

Chapter 1

Paul, the trim shop assistant manager, met with all the trim-line group leaders (one of whom is you) to discuss a troubling trend in trim-line scrap. Scrap costs had increased 8 percent over the last two months. Paul requested that each group leader initiate problem solving in their groups to reduce scrap cost generated from their processes. He set the target of returning each group’s scrap cost to its earlier level within 30 days.

If you were Tina what would you do next?

Chapter 2

After the meeting with Paul, Tina, the trim section B group leader (you), decided to analyze her scrap costs to identify where increases in her group had occurred. Tina reviewed her scrap reports from the previous four weeks to determine what part her group was scrapping most often and which of the parts being scrapped created the highest cost. She also asked each of her five team leaders to sort through the scrap records they had written in the current week to determine the same information.

The analysis showed that a side panel interior trim piece in Dan’s team was the part that Tina’s group had scrapped the most. Due to the quantity of the part scrapped, it was also the highest scrap expense to the group. Tina decided to target her initial activity at scrap reduction on this trim piece.

In what step of Practical Problem Solving is Tina?

Analysis

What mentoring/coaching behaviors is Tina using?

  • Show me.

Mentors prefer facts and data over opinion.

  • The mentor must see deeply him/herself.

If Tina tells her team leaders to observe their processes and then report back to her, she will not be in a position to evaluate their comments. More on this in a moment.

  • Single-factor experiments.

Tina prefers serial rather than parallel countermeasures. The goal is to learn about the work system, not just shut off the problem via a shotgun blast of countermeasures. Within one contiguous flowing production process, like Tina’s group along the assembly line, mentors encourage mentees to only change one thing at a time and check the results. Changing more than one thing simultaneously increases the number of variables and makes cause and effect harder to see, which makes problem solving difficult. If you try to reduce scrap everywhere in the group, you lose sight of cause and effect and don’t develop an understanding of the system.

Tina has decided to identify and focus on the biggest problem and not unleash chaos in her group by creating multiple variables.

Inappropriate actions by the mentor in this cycle would have been:

  • Simply ask the five team leaders what they think is the problem.
  • Tell the team leaders that we must reduce scrap.
  • Tell the team leaders to observe their processes, to go and see.

In what step of Practical Problem Solving is Tina?

  • Tina is trying to identify the priority She is in Step 1: Pick up the problem.

If you were Tina what would you do next?

Chapter 3

Tina decided to talk with Dan, the team leader of the team that installs the trim, to get a sense of his grasp of the situation.

Dan told Tina that he wasn’t sure what was going on with the side panel trim piece. He noticed that the team had been scrap- ping more of the parts lately. He also knew that one of the team members on the process had complained that the parts seemed harder to install. He also felt that he had been answering more andon-cord pulls (calls for assistance) at that process lately and that they were usually related to the side panel trim.

In what step of Practical Problem Solving are Tina and Dan?

Analysis

What mentoring/coaching behaviors is Tina using?

  • Leading with

Tina’s task as a manager and mentor is not to solve the problem, but to develop her mentees’ improvement capabilities through practice. Tina would garner no praise or credit from her superiors if she were to solve the scrap problem herself, because by doing that she would have wasted an opportunity to further develop the capability of the organization. Tina’s job is to develop Dan as a problem solver.

Since a mentor’s job is to develop the mentee, they tend not to quickly tell the mentee what to do. Although mentors are experienced in problem solving, they do not point out solutions or give detailed instructions.

The mentee is given a challenge, a problem, and is expected to make mistakes along the way, on a small scale. Those very mistakes show the mentor what behaviors the mentee needs to practice and what inputs the mentor should give. By asking

questions and observing how the mentee responds, the mentor learns what the mentee is thinking. The mentor then provides guidance to move the mentee into the corridor of thinking and acting prescribed by the improvement kata.

For these reasons, in this cycle Tina will not tell Dan to go and observe the process. She will ask Dan what next step he proposes and observe how he answers. Dan is thinking about the problem, but Tina is thinking about how Dan is approaching the problem.

The power of teaching by asking questions goes back to Socrates, but it is a difficult skill to learn. The method fails if it is used by someone in authority who is simply trying to convince others of a particular solution or answer. People can detect the difference between authentic, neutral inquiry versus an effort to persuade them. There is a big difference between using questions to get a person to come to your preconceived solution versus using questions to discern how a person is thinking and what they need to learn.

Inappropriate actions by the mentor in this cycle would have been:

  • Tell Dan to go and observe his process.
  • Tell Dan how to proceed.

In what step of Practical Problem Solving are Tina and Dan?

  • They are about to get into Step 2: Grasp the situation.

If you were Tina what would you do next?

Chapter 4

In talking to Dan, Tina realized that he had not picked up the problem with the side panel trim even though there were indica- tions that a problem existed. Tina realized that she needed to work with Dan to further develop his problem-solving skills.

Tina and Dan went to the scrap area to look at the most recent side panel trim pieces to be scrapped. She asked him to look at all the scrap trim pieces and tell her what he observed. The first thing Dan noticed was that a nylon clip was broken on most of the parts. He showed the clip to Tina and proposed that they call Incoming Inspection to check if the parts were being delivered from the supplier with cracks in the nylon clip.

Analysis

What mentoring/coaching behaviors is Tina using?

  • Sometimes the mentor is directive about the next step.

After hearing Dan’s response, Tina proposed they go look at the scrapped pieces, rather than waiting for Dan to suggest this step. Toyota’s mentoring approach is not done exclusively through questions. It is not supposed to be a guessing game for the mentee. The mentor is asking questions in order to see what the mentee is thinking. Once that has occurred, the mentor may make a directive statement regarding the next step (but not about solutions).

  • Go and see. Tina went with Dan to see the situation.

Had Dan in the past proven himself to be a highly experienced problem solver, it is possible that Tina may have let him go alone and then report back to her. But she knew from his response that he was a beginner in problem solving and needed more of her coaching help.

If Tina had sent Dan to the production process and scrap area and asked him to report back his findings without going and looking for herself, she would have effectively nullified her ability to manage further. If a mentor does not have firsthand understanding of the situation, then they cannot lead. This is an important point. Tina would have no way to evaluate whether what Dan was saying and proposing was on the right track or not. She would essentially be out of the picture and could only nod and say, “Okay, let’s do that.” (This points out an Achilles’ heel in management by objectives as we have been practicing it.) Although Tina’s job is to develop the improvement capability of her mentees, she must understand the real situation deeply enough to evaluate what her mentee is telling her, in order to see what the mentee needs to learn and what the mentee’s next step is. So mentors are generally paying attention to two things: the situation under scrutiny, and how the mentee is approaching the situation.

  • Observe, don’t interview.

Many of us would interview the operators in the process, to see what they think might be the problem. As we have already discussed, this only gives you people’s opinions, not facts and data. Mentors and mentees must learn to see deeply for themselves and understand what is happening.

Inappropriate actions by the mentor in this cycle would have been:

  • Have Dan go observe the process and report back to Tina.
  • Ask or interview the workers in the process.

If you were Tina what would you do next?

(Dan has made a proposal, to which you must respond.)

Chapter 5

Tina responded that when they had finished their investigation and established that in fact it was a parts-quality problem, they would call Incoming Inspection. In the meantime she asked Dan not to jump to conclusions too soon and to look at the parts again. When Dan looked at the scrapped parts again, he noticed that one of the three mounting studs on every part had damaged threads on its end.

In what step of Practical Problem Solving are Tina and Dan?

Analysis

What mentoring/coaching behaviors is Tina using?

  • Guide the mentee to “work it back” to the point of cause.

If Dan were to contact the parts-receiving department at this early point, it would initiate a lot of activity, but the situation is not yet understood. Imagine how much waste would result if people from many different areas were contacting Incoming Inspection so early in their problem solving. Engaging the parts-receiving department in this way is, incidentally, not uncommon.

Mentors will guide their mentees to first grasp the condition where the problem was discovered, and then work it back from there if the evidence suggests doing that.

In what step of Practical Problem Solving are Tina and Dan?

  • Tina and Dan are still trying to clarify what is They have not yet found the point of cause and are still in Step 2: Grasp the situation.

Chapter 6

Tina suggested to Dan that they go and observe the side panel trim installation process. They checked the line-side parts for the damaged stud threads, and did not find any, before watching the operator perform the process.

Then Tina and Dan went to look at the work standard for the side panel trim process. The standard required that the team member pick up the part and the nut driver at the parts rack before moving to the vehicle to install the part. The driver is placed on the vehicle floor, and the part is then positioned so the nylon clips line up with holes in the body panel. The team member then knocks the clips into the panel with his hand. Next, the team member picks up the driver and loads its socket with a nut. He then installs a nut onto each of the three studs.

After watching the team member install several parts, Tina asked Dan if he noticed anything that could be a potential problem with the installation. Dan said that everything looked normal to him. He could see no deviation from the work standard. Tina asked him to look again but this time to focus on what specific actions the team member takes to install the nuts to the studs.

In what step of Practical Problem Solving are Tina and Dan?

Analysis

What mentoring/coaching behaviors is Tina using?

  • Refer to the work standard or target condition before observing a process.

Tina and Dan checked the work standard before observing the process. Be sure to understand the way the process should be operating, so you have a point of comparison. This is why the first of the five questions is, “What is the target condition / standard at this process?”

  • When the mentee makes a proposal or statement, the mentor should respond quickly.

When I first received this advice from a Toyota person, I mistakenly thought it meant that the mentor must fully understand the situation and know the solution. Try as I might, that was something I could almost never achieve.

Tina has asked Dan to look again at the process and focus specifically on what the team member does to install the nuts to the studs. It seems like Tina knows the solution, doesn’t it? A young American working at Toyota in Japan once told me how it initially drove him crazy that his Japanese mentors would ask him questions and seemed to already have a solution in mind. “If you know what you want me to do then just tell me!” he wanted to say.

After some time the American learned that the mentor does not, and should not, have a preconceived solution in mind. The mentor must answer quickly, but he only has to see what the next step is. The mentor cannot fully know the way ahead, but he must grasp the situation deeply enough to know what the next step is so he can lead his mentee to and through it. And if the next step is unclear, then the answer is almost always, “Let’s go and see.” In most cases the next step is in fact to get more specific facts or data. Once I learned this, my own efforts to experiment with mentoring became considerably more effective.

Tina does not have in mind a solution to the problem. It is Dan’s responsibility to solve the problem and her responsibility to develop Dan’s capability to do that. But she does know that the damage to the threads on the studs is likely to be occurring when the nut is driven onto the stud. She has an inkling about the point of cause, and is guiding Dan in that direction.

  • Go and see.

Imagine in what direction this effort might be going if Tina had stayed in her office and Dan was reporting his impressions to her there. Tina could not do this mentoring if she was not at the process with Dan understanding the current situation firsthand.

  • Overlap of responsibility.

Although Dan is responsible for the doing and Tina cannot just tell him what to do, since her job is to teach Dan, she knows that she in turn bears a lot of the responsibility for the results.

In what step of Practical Problem Solving are Tina and Dan?

  • Tina has recognized that the point of cause is probably where the nut is driven onto the stud, but Dan has Tina would be ready to enter Step 3 (Investigate causes), but since Dan is the one who has to solve the problem, they are still in Step 2 (Grasp the situation). Tina is guiding Dan to the next step in a way that allows him to learn the lesson for himself.

Chapter 7

Then Dan noticed that the team member had to install the nut through a hole in the side panel, and that the team member could not see the end of the stud to assure that the nut was correctly located. The team member had to rely on feel to determine if the nut was aligned. Dan told Tina that now he knew what the prob- lem was. The side panel trim installation had two new team mem- bers working on it in the past month. The new team members just didn’t have the feel for the nut alignment yet, and that was why the threads were getting damaged and the parts were being scrapped.

Dan suggested that they would need to do a better job of training new team members so they wouldn’t strip the threads on the studs.

Analysis

No mentoring activity by Tina in Chapter 7

If you were Tina what would you do next?

(Dan has made a proposal, to which you must respond.)

Chapter 8

Tina suggested that first they should confirm the relationship between the number of scrap parts and new team members on the process. She and Dan reviewed the scrap records for the group and compared any increase in the amount of scrapped side panel trim pieces to the dates that new team members were on the process. They found a direct relationship. Each time there was a new team member, there was a significant increase in the number of trim pieces that were scrapped.

Dan told Tina that he would have a meeting with all the team members who worked on that process immediately and tell them they needed to be more careful. He also said he would retrain all of them on installing the nut.

In what step of Practical Problem Solving are Tina and Dan?

Analysis

What mentoring/coaching behaviors is Tina using?

  • Show me.

Mentors prefer facts and data over opinion.

In what step of Practical Problem Solving are Tina and Dan?

  • Tina and Dan have reached Step 3: Investigate causes.

If you were Tina what would you do next?

(Dan has made a proposal, to which you must respond.)

Chapter 9

Tina asked Dan if he knew what the team members were doing when the threads stripped. Dan replied that he didn’t know what they were doing but he knew they weren’t doing it correctly. Tina suggested they revisit the process and take a closer look at what the operators were actually doing and what the circumstances were when the threads stripped out.

When they observed the process again, they saw the team member on the process load the nut into the driver socket. Next, the team member started the driver to spin the socket and improve the setting of the nut in the socket. The trigger is then released to locate the nut on the stud. Then the driver trigger is depressed again to install the nut on the stud. Tina and Dan didn’t see anything abnormal about the way the team member they were observing did the process. This team member didn’t create any stripped threads while he was on the process that shift. Tina suggested to Dan that they observe one of the new team members on this process. Then they saw a different technique being used. This team member kept the trigger of the driver depressed while he was locating the nut on the stud.

Tina suggested that she and Dan conduct an experiment to confirm that what they had seen could create stripped threads.

In what step of Practical Problem Solving are Tina and Dan?

Analysis

What mentoring/coaching behaviors is Tina using?

  • Focus on understanding the process, not on implementing countermeasures.

Tina and Dan are at Step 3 (Investigate causes), but with his proposals, Dan is skipping over this and going right into Step 4 (Develop and test countermeasure). This is not unusual.

We often think that good problem solving means applying countermeasures. In contrast, the focus in problem solving at Toyota is on understanding the current situation so deeply that the countermeasure becomes obvious. Mentees are prevented from introducing countermeasures before they sufficiently grasp the situation.

If we introduce countermeasures before understanding the situation, we create more variables, which interferes with identifying root causes. In the worst case, the wrong countermeasure might temporarily reduce occurrence of the problem, making us believe our effort was a success.

  • Focus on the process, not the people.

Mentors know that the vast majority of problems are caused by the system within which people work, not by the individuals themselves. They assume that the operators are doing their best, that if they were in the operators’ shoes, the same thing would still have happened, and that training alone does not improve a process.

An important point to realize here is that if we did carry out Dan’s suggestion of retraining the new operators, then the scrap rate is likely to decrease. However, this would not be because the root cause had been identified and eliminated, but because extra managerial attention had been paid to the process. The same problem would return again later, because the process itself has not actually been improved in any way.

To instill this thinking in their mentees, mentors will ask questions such as, “What is preventing the operator from working to standard?” or, “Do you know what the person was doing when the problem occurred?”

Dan is proposing training, but training in what? How does the process, the standard, need to be changed so the process is actually improved? He has not yet answered this question.

  • Testing over talking.

Conduct small-scale tests before implementing something on a broad scale. As always, seek facts and data.

In what step of Practical Problem Solving are Tina and Dan?

  • Tina and Dan are in Step 3: Investigate causes.

Chapter 10

Tina and Dan took some scrap trim pieces and a driver over to a vehicle and tried installing the trim using the method they had seen at their process. They noticed a feeling in the driver when the nut was properly located. This was an important point, because the positioning of the nut to the stud is a blind operation in the installation of the side panel trim. Next they tried installing the nut using the method they had seen at the other process.

During the second trial, they kept the driver running while trying to align the nut and stud. Of the 10 tries, four resulted in stripped threads. Tina and Dan now knew that the only way to be sure the nut and stud are properly aligned is to perform the positioning with the driver in the off position.

Next, Tina and Dan went to look at the work standard for the side panel trim process again. There was no information that instructed the team member to make the positioning of the nut and stud before triggering the driver. Dan told Tina that now he could hold a meeting with the team members to discuss the results of their investigation and instruct each of them on the correct procedure for installing the nuts.

Tina directed Dan to also correct the work standard based on their findings. In addition, she asked him to report their findings the next morning at the team leader meeting and to work with the other team leaders to identity other processes in the group with the potential for having the same problem.

In what step of Practical Problem Solving are Tina and Dan?

Analysis

What mentoring/coaching behaviors is Tina using?

  • Conduct small-scale tests before implementing.
  • Refer to the work standard or target condition.

In what step of Practical Problem Solving are Tina and Dan?

  • Tina and Dan are now in Step 4: Develop and test countermeasure.

If you were Tina what would you do next?