Jeffrey K. Liker: An interview by Bob Morris

Jeffrey K. Liker

Jeffrey K. Liker is Professor of Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University of Michigan and principal of Liker Lean Advisors, LLC. He has authored or co-authored over 75 articles and book chapters and ten books. His published works include international best-seller, The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer and six other books, with coauthors, focusing deeply on aspects of the Toyota Way:  The Toyota Way Fieldbook, Toyota Talent, Toyota Culture, The Toyota Product Development System, The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement, Toyota Under Fire, and The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership (due out in October).

Morris: Before discussing earlier books and especially your latest book, The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth?

Liker:   That would be my wife.  In Meyers Briggs terms we are alike in all respects except I am a thinker and she is a feeler.  As a thinker, and naturally aggressive and always on a fast track somewhere, I often run over people.  My son says:  “Dad thinks tact is spelled TAKT.”  She has helped to balance me, as much as is humanly possible.

Morris:  The greatest impact on your professional development?

Liker:   There have been so many it is hard to pick one, but if forced to, I would have to go back to a sociology professor, Jack Levin, when I was an industrial engineering undergraduate at Northeastern University.  I was always more interested in social psychology than in engineering, but engineering was practical and I could get a job.  I took all my very few electives in the sociology department and because of Jack Levin’s strong influence—he was the most dynamic teacher I have ever met and a great human being—I decided to pursue a PhD in sociology.  Then I ended up as a professor of industrial engineering at University of Michigan so I guess it was destined to be, but I would not have studied the Japanese auto industry and ultimately channeled my career to learning from the Toyota Way if not for Jack.

Morris:  Was there a turning point in the past (if not an epiphany) that set you on the course you continue to follow?

Liker:   When I was at Northeastern University I had a cooperative education job for most of my years at General Foods known as a pioneer in sociotechnical systems.  It was mainly because of one dog food plant in Topeka, Kansas.  That absolutely fascinated me and I studied everything I could about it including writing papers about it in my industrial engineering classes (to the chagrin of my IE professors).  I continued to pursue it as a professor at UM, but it become more and more clear that socio-technical systems were really socio systems and the answer was always self-directed work teams.  There was no interaction with the technical system.  I visited a supplier that TSSC (Toyota’s arm for teaching TPS to outside companies) and saw a well functioning cell in the middle of a plant that was traditional manufacturing everywhere else.  The cell was a completely different social world.  It then struck me TPS was a true sociotechnical system.  I have never looked back.

Morris:   To what extent has your formal education proven to be invaluable to your career success thus far? Please explain.

Liker:  Well most of my formal training is sociology was in quantitative sociology and most of my published peer-reviewed papers (that got me tenure) were based on statistical analysis of survey data.  I have long since gotten tired of doing that kind of work and what I do now is closer to qualitative sociology which I never formally studied. But probably most important was learning to write.  As a PhD student my mentor Peter Rossi ordered me to learn to write at the typewriter, instead of first writing on paper.  That translated to writing at the computer so once I know roughly what I want to communicate I just write, sometimes a whole chapter in one sitting.   I wrote a master’s thesis, a PhD dissertation, and about 80 peer-review articles and book chapters.  Malcolm Gladwell is right in his 10,000 hours.  Practice and feedback make a difference, as well as being in the right place at the right time.  So writing The Toyota Way was fun—just writing without having to please academic peers reviewing me or cite and defend every single sentence.  And I would have to say somehow the combination of industrial engineering and studying sociology and psychology gives me a different way of thinking about organizations.

Morris: In recent years, there has been severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, including those now offered at the most prestigious business schools such as yours. In your opinion, which one area is in greatest need of immediate improvement? Why?

Liker:  Business schools teach individual subjects in isolation and generally take a business or technical view—almost never a sociotechnical view.  From a lean viewpoint we think about a system of people, processes, and problem solving.  We think about engaging relatively uneducated team members in continuous improvement because there is a strong value placed on a combination of understanding the gemba and learning to improve processes to get closer and closer to perfection.   The result of this integration, and eliminating waste, is to streamline organizations and keep things simple to support people in active problem solving.   The MBA seems to attract and reinforce ideas completely contrary to this:  the isolated individual with superior intellect and education is the lone thinker that has to whip the business into shape, tools are for analysis and control, and people are numbers in a spreadsheet. It teaches mechanistic thinking.  An exception is in organizational behavior but that is generally isolated and viewed as the soft stuff that does not get you the fast track management job.

Morris: Of all the business books you have read in recent years, which do you hold in highest regard? Why?

Liker:  I would say Jim Collin’s book Built to Last. As I read it I kept thinking about Toyota.  His main point is that exceptional companies, that also dramatically outperform their competitors over the long term, are run by senior executives who are passionate abut the business and see the enterprise as the creation they are trying to perpetuate.  It is not just a means to profitability or a fast track career by hitting the numbers, but a life’s work.  And the life’s work is not the particular products made as those are transitory. The passion is to be part of creating something that will last way beyond the lifetime of the leaders.

To have that passion they must love that particular business, they must put the company ahead of their own ego, they must build a culture of excellence, and their most important job is to develop successors who live the values and will take the company to the next level.  That is Toyota, but it was great to read in Jim Collin’s compelling way of writing, about a broader set of principles that are shared with other companies in completely different businesses with very different strengths.

My epiphany was that leaning out processes is not the point, but rather the point is the endless pursuit of excellence. This is the theme of The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement and one section of the introduction asks:  “Is lean mediocrity at a cheaper price?”

Morris:   Here’s a two-part question. What are the most common misconceptions about process improvement? What in fact is true?

Liker:  And you wanted to keep this short. At a high level, going back o the continuous improvement book, we distinguish between mechanistic and organic thinking.  When we think of organizations like machines then processes become concrete and they stand alone apart from the people.  When we “lean out a process” it is as if it is a process is a machine that we are redesigning or overhauling and people’s roles are to follow the process mindlessly and maintain the machine.  In an organic viewpoint—a sociotechnical systems view—processes do not exist apart from people.  The process on its own is simply a set of steps and they are too general to apply to most real situations. It is the people that do the work and the formal process may provide some guidelines.  We cannot improve the process unless we improve the people so they can continually adapt the process to specific conditions and try to learn the nuances from experience so they can continuously improve it.

Morris:  Based on your own direct experiences as well as what you have observed and what your research reveals, what is the single biggest mistake that companies make when attempting process improvement? Why? How best to avoid or overcome that mistake?

Liker:  It goes back to the thinking about process improvement.  Since most executives have been trained as MBAs or at least think as if they did they are mechanistic thinkers. It is all input and output.  What inputs do we need to get the outputs we desire.  They have little patience or interest for getting inside the system to understand how to develop people to develop their mastery of process improvement.  They love the idea of “leaning out processes” which to them is mostly an attempt to get short-term cost reductions.  To overcome it you have to literally get inside of the minds of the executives and get them to understand the complexity of the social and technical system and what it really means to build an excellent institution that will outlast them.  And the hardest part is getting them to think long term.  It requires some significant emotional events for them with a teacher right there at the right time to help them interpret what happened.  But if they are not open to learning, are not passionate about self development as we call it in our new book on lean leadership, there is not a lot you can do.

Morris:  In Leading Change, James O’Toole suggests that much of the resistance to change initiatives is cultural in nature, the result of what he so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” What do you think?

Liker:  I still tend to look to the top leaders of the company and often they are very comfortable with change and see the masses as to stuck in the rut of custom so they try to shake up the organization.  They blow up the organization through restructuring, the outsource functions, and the whole time they are driving toward the types of business characteristics Wall Street loves.  They need to change their thinking to value culture and understand that they need to lead the culture change and it may take an the time to turnover an entire generation of management to really make the needed changes.

Morris: Years ago at GE’s annual meeting, then chairman and CEO, Jack Welch, explained why he highly admired what he called “entrepreneurial” companies. Here’s an excerpt:

“For one, they communicate better. Without the din and prattle of bureaucracy, people listen as well as talk; and since there are fewer of them they generally know and understand each other. Second, small companies move faster. They know the penalties for hesitation in the marketplace. Third, in small companies, with fewer layers and less camouflage, the leaders show up very clearly on the screen. Their performance and its impact are clear to everyone. And, finally, smaller companies waste less. They spend less time in endless reviews and approvals and politics and paper drills. They have fewer people; therefore they can only do the important things. Their people are free to direct their energy and attention toward the marketplace rather than fighting bureaucracy.”

Now here’s my question for you: To what extent do these attributes cited by Welch enable smaller companies to be better positioned to sustain continuous improvement than, say, Fortune 500 companies? Please explain.

Liker:  Obviously building a culture or changing it is easier with fewer people and fewer locations.  Mammoth global organizations have had success at significantly transforming an individual plant, that happens to have the right kind of leadership, but it is a drop in the bucket meaning little to the bottom line and when the excellent leader is transferred or leaves the company the one model lean plant regresses to the mean—it is consumed by the broader culture.  Now if that same plant was the entire company and that great leader was an owner who was passionate about building the culture it could be an incredible success.  I got to know Rich Sheridan who says the life was being drained out of him as an executive in a medium sized I.T. firm, so he started his own company building the culture he wanted from the start.  Menlo Innovations is an amazing company and the corporate theme is “fun.”  Rich will not expand the company beyond about 100 people and he will not expand it to multiple branches because he does not want a watered down culture.

Morris:  In all of your books about Toyota, you assert or at least imply that The Toyota Way is not interchangeable with The Toyota Production System (TPS). Please explain.

Liker:  What I say is that TPS is a particular manifestation of The Toyota Way applied to the problems of manufacturing.  The Toyota Way is the broader philosophy that is perhaps best illustrated by TPS in the factories.  The “lean principles” of TPS are incorporated as one of the foundational elements of the Toyota Way, as part of kaizen.

Morris:  Now please shift your attention to The Toyota Way, and the related Fieldbook co-authored with David Meier. Of all the 14 principles, which of the 14 management principles do companies seem to have the greatest difficulty understanding and then applying effectively? Why

Liker:  The foundation is the philosophy that I refer to as “think long term even at the expense of short-term financial gains.  I was recently at a management offsite of a company that prides itself on long-term thinking and the founder and his son run the company.   The CEO personally was at the entire event. I talked about culture and leadership and the concept of continuous improvement and the focus of the company is to create a culture of continuous improvement.  All their top leaders discussed the current state and future state of the culture and actions that should be taken.  They agreed the company was managed by metrics and results rather than process and development of process improvement skills are weak at all levels.  They also agreed they were very weak on problem solving skills. They echoed what I told them about learning by doing and the benefit of working on small pilot projects with a coach so they could begin learning. Then when the CEO announced the plans for the next year they were the same plans he walked in with—we are going to map end to end processes where the big waste is, we are going to spread the manufacturing lighthouse project, etc.  They were all big projects with a short-term ROI.  None of his plans included anything we had discussed that day.  He was under pressure from the board to deliver results fast.  He did agree on the need for problem solving training and said he would think about that.  And this was a relatively enlightened company that provides itself on following its core values and putting people first.

Morris: While recently re-reading this brilliant book, The Toyota Way, I was again struck by the clarity as well as precision with which you and organize the material within four thematic categories:

• Having a long-term philosophy that drives a long-term approach to building a learning organization
• Absolute faith that the right process will produce the right results
• Adding value to the organization by developing its people and partners
• Continuously solving root problems to drive organizational learning

In my opinion, achieving and then sustaining these four separate but interdependent components pose unique leadership challenges. Is that a fair assessment and, if so, specifically which leadership qualities and core competencies are absolutely essential to ultimate success?

Liker:  First let me thank you.  My son thinks it is funny that my 4P model has 5Ps. It is philosophy, process, people and partners, and problem solving.   Originally it was people, but a Toyota leader suggested I also specify partners because they are as important to the enterprise as employees of Toyota.  You are correct and that is the focus of our newest book on “The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership.”  We argue that in many ways Toyota’s leadership model is diametrically opposed to western thinking about leadership.

The idea of the 4P model is that it is a system.   To put it simply, you must have a long-term perspective to absolutely value the growing knowledge and skill-base of your team members and leaders, enough to make enormous investments in their development.  They are the lynch pin of the model. It is people who use problem-solving methods, based on PDCA, to continuously improve processes.  A one-off process improvement project, like end-to-end value stream mapping, is based on a snapshot of all the problems we have today.  But this can be a problem.

First, there are far too many problems to take on at once in anything but a very superficial way.  Second, what make a process work are all the detailed things that people do on a daily basis and you will barely penetrate those.  It is important to have a broad vision of the ideal state, but you must break it into pieces that you work on step by step.   Each step brings you a little closer to the vision, and the hardest thing for most managers is that you are not sure what steps are necessary to get to the future state and the world is changing every day as you are trying to implement your plan.

So after you take a step (do) need to reflect on what you learned (check), and then adjust your plan based on what you learn which may send you in a different direction than you expected.  That creates a great deal of uncertainty about what we will do and where it will lead us.  The uncertainty is fine if you keep focused on the ideal state.  The skills to lead an improvement process like this are very different: Understanding what is possible and having faith so you can lead the team to develop a future state all believe in, defining the problems (gaps), prioritizing them, starting with one and doing a complete PDCA cycle on that first step, leading the group to identify the next step, etc.  And this must happen while bringing the individuals together as a team, constantly thinking about what each person can learn from this exercise and how to develop them, and teaching them a problem solving process you as a leader have barely experienced.  That is why we say that you need an experienced coach.

Morris:  For those who have not as yet read this book, what are the defining characteristics of the Toyota Way and to what extent (if any) should it be replicated by other organizations, whatever their size and nature may be?

Liker:  I believe that for any company to achieve operational excellence at whatever they do they need leaders at all levels who understand the basic concepts of defining customer value, one-piece flow, identifying waste, and using the PDCA process to work toward the next set of challenging targets with drive and passion.  If someone challenged me and said that is true for Toyota maybe, but not every company, I would refer to any team activity from sports to music to cooking to developing a product or service and so on.  In any of those cases can you be the best if individuals are not highly developed and continuously improving themselves, they are coming together as a team to work toward a common goal, and they are using a systematic process of learning from what they try to do?

Ask a football coach to develop a winning team with great athletes, but weak plans, little systematic practice of basic skills, scrimmages to learn to work together as a team and compete against other teams, looking at the tape after each practice and critically evaluating what just happened and what to work on next, and then studying and planning to prepare for each game.  Those elements that are absolutely critical to building a winning team are sorely lacking in most organizations.

Morris:  Are (no pun intended) sub-ways such as one for leaders, and another for followers, and still another for strategic allies?

Liker:  The short answer is no.  They all must learn to follow PDCA in all of its complexity.  They all must get aligned toward common objectives.  They all must be dedicated to improving themselves toward a vision of excellence and learn how to do that.  And they all must learn the necessity of building trust in relationships so they can work as a collective toward their common goals.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Toyota Culture, co-authored with Michael Hoseus. Here’s a two-part question. To what extent (if any) has Toyota’s cultural values changed since you began to study the company about 30 years ago?

Liker:  None of the values have changed in any significant way since Sakichi Toyoda started the automatic loom company more than a century ago.  I would say they have evolved and develop nuance, but Toyota’s document, The Toyota Way 2001, has not been changed since 2001, and it reflects the Toyota principles that Sakichi Toyoda originally wrote down.  What has changed more than the cultural values has been the ability to articulate them in more and more detail as Toyota has globalized and learned by teaching in other cultures the values.  It is hard for a fish to understand water and it was hard for Toyota so immersed in what they call their DNA to understand and explain what was distinctive about their culture.  That is why they see value in the writings of my associates and I.

Morris:  What lessons about cultural values can be learned from NUMMI (1984-2010), Toyota’s joint venture with General Motors in California?

Liker:  The most fundamental problem that GM faced prior to NUMMI is that they did not value people.  In fact management and the value-added team members were more often then not at war.  Experiencing NUMMI for thoughtful GM managers and engineers turned their world upside down.  They began to see the team member at the center of every process and the value of investing in the development of people.  They began to see the TPS tools as tools to highlight problems to challenge team members so they could grow in their capability.  Unfortunately when they returned to GM it was business as usual and they were frustrated by the resilience of that culture.  But person after person came back from NUMMI and began chipping away at the culture.  By the time leading up to GMs bankruptcy the level of GM plants was quite high because of all these converts who spent time at NUMMI.  It was a totally different world, particularly in the best factories.  Unfortunately it took over two decades and mostly the change was limited to manufacturing.  So one key lesson is that with time and exposure of enough people who learn even the most recalcitrant culture can change for the better.

Morris: You and he also offer 13 “tips.” In your opinion, which of them will be of greatest value to leaders of not-for-profit organizations? Why

Liker:  Those tips are for transformation.  As you know Toyota has formed TSSC into a not for profit and half of their work is donated to other not-for-profits.  The leaders of those organizations have an enormous change management challenge particularly since in the case of volunteer organizations volunteers are often temporary and have other careers and the leaders themselves may rotate frequently.   So they need every ounce of change management capability and the 13 tips can be very applicable to them.

Morris:  Someone has read and then re-read this book and now wants to establish a “Lean Learning Enterprise” within her or his own organization. Where to begin? Which do’s and don’ts should be kept in mind?

Liker:  This is scattered across the books, and is perhaps best stated in the new book, The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement.  At the highest level we talk about striking a balance between organic (focused on specific deep projects for coaching and developing leaders and teams one by one—a slow gradual process) and mechanistic (top-down driving of projects and organizational structuring and challenging target setting).  Starting with a pilot, or a few if you have the resources, is what we preach because most organizations have so many misconceptions of what lean is and is not so they have to learn by experiencing the transformation.  But often the pilots, which can take 6 months to a year, are limited to select people and make a big local impact but not a visible bottom-line impact for the company.  So senior executives might lose interest by the end of the year.

If the company needs to make a measureable impact, the initial projects should focus on the impact needed.  In the leadership book, which was written with a former Toyota managing officer, Gary Convis, we talk about Dana (vehicle chassis supplier) and how he at first as CEO began to change the company from slipping into bankruptcy after coming out of Chapter 11. They needed big dollar savings and major restructuring fast.  So the starting point was more command and control, but they managed to keep their eye on the prize and take the enormous challenge as an opportunity to develop leaders (or select those out who were not teachable) and begin to change the culture.

Morris:  Did you and Jim Frantz encounter any head-snapping revelations while writing The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement?

Liker:  The most fundamental is the overall premise that the Toyota Way is not a focus on “leaning out processes,” but one of striving for perfection.  Leaning out processes gives a static image of a process as if it were a mechanical mechanism and it needs to be fixed to take out wasteful steps.  Many people who are lean trained will map a process and get excited and proud that they can see all kinds of waste.  Then they assume if they can see the waste and come up with ideas for eliminating it they have solved 90% of the problem.  They actually have solved about 5% of the problem.  The real goal is to get people in the process, like supervisors and their work groups, to have a vision of perfection, see the gaps to the current situation, prioritize the first gaps they will work on, set a target for improvement, understand the root causes of the gap, and creatively step by step work toward achieving the target.  Then they will be one step closer to perfection.  Next they see another gap and take another step.  Simply seeing waste is a relatively useless exercise.  There is always waste.  What will you work on? Who will work on it?  Who will learn so they can improve themselves while improving the process so the organization gets stronger and better able to move toward excellence.  What we are describing by continuous improvement is many small PDCA loops where one loop leads to learning that starts the next loop.  In fact all great inventions have come from trial and error and many systematic PDCA loops.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ from the one you originally envisioned? Please explain.

Liker:  The form is basically what I envisioned:  Defining continuous improvement and trying to counter common misperceptions, then giving a series of detailed case examples in different industries and situations to show how the basic philosophy of PDCA applies in any environment, then reflecting on what we learned from the cases.  One change that occurred as we were writing it was the idea of having the seven cases written from the viewpoint of the sensei who were guiding the teams leading the transformation—a VP of engineering in one case, an executive in charge of pathology in a medical lab in another, and a number of lean advisors for the rest.  I worked with them and they are listed as coauthors of the chapters.  Then throughout these case study chapters we have sensei reflections on what they did, why, and practical advice for others.

Morris: The Prologue is introduced with this question: “Is Toyota still a great company others can learn from?” What is your response to that question?

Liker:   Very simple:  unequivocally yes!  The recall crisis was mainly a sham perpetuated by powerful people with their own self interests in mind—politicians who wanted to get reelected, journalists who wanted to increase readership (or win a Pulitzer prize in the L.A. Times case), lawyers and their “safety advocate” expert witnesses, and even customers hoping to make some money.  They concocted a totally unrealistic myth of electronic interference causing sudden unintended acceleration.  It never made sense to anyone who understood the design of electronic throttle control systems, the history of investigating claims like this, the fail-safe systems Toyota had built into their automobiles, and the incredible testing the Toyota performs.  There were a few minor defects that caused customer feel issues, but not any accidents other than the Saylor accident which was a dealer error in putting an oversized all weather floor mat into a loaner car.  Yet, Toyota treated this crisis as very real and reflected on every aspect of the company globally coming up with thousands of countermeasures to improve themselves.  That is what a great company does.

Morris: Your research for this book included reading “some of the great management books on companies that are consistently high performers.” What do these books fail to address?

Liker:  In the Continuous Improvement book when it became clear that CI is about kaizen to continually improve individuals and the company I read in a variety of areas—books about high performance organizations like “In Search of Excellence” and “Good to Great,” books about how people develop mastery from Malcolm Gladwell’s work to books by experts in martial arts, and even books about deep practice for musicians.  The talent development books are very useful but focus on the individual level and the books about great companies describe at a macro-level characteristics of these companies.  But they do not tell you how to develop an excellent organization or how the talent of individuals translates to operational excellence.  This is a gap that Toyota Way principles and practical approaches to lean transformation fills.

Morris: In Section One (Chapters 1-5), you introduce and then discuss a number of “background concepts,” each of which is then anchored in a real-world context as you proceed through detailed case studies in Section Two. Which of these concepts do most C-level executives seem to have the greatest difficulty understanding? Why?

Liker:  The overarching theme is a distinction between thinking about organizations as if they are machines compared to thinking about organizations organically as complex sociotechnical systems.  Machine thinking leads t simple minded notions of cause and effect:  I find the waste in the process and lean it out and I get bottom-line results, I train up some lean leaders in a 10 day course and they have the skills and capabilities to lean out processes, and once a process is leaned out there is some silver bullet that will sustain the gains.  None of these assumptions is the least bit realistic when you understand the complex reality of people and systems.  Processes do not exist apart from people following them and adjusting them as conditions constantly change.  So you cannot improve processes in any sustainable way without improving people.  The reason for many small PDCA loops is to develop people so they can work in teams to take on greater and greater challenges.

Morris: What is the PDCA mindset and what differentiates it from others such as Lean, Six Sigma, and Theory of Constraint?

Liker:  The mindset starts with a humbleness in the face of the complex universe we are a part of.  Toyota growing up in a rice farming village on a small island nation constantly bombarded with earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons had to respect the unpredictability of the environment and learn how to be adaptive.  They learned by trying things and seeing what happened.  Still today the basic idea of PDCA in Toyota starts with the assumption that we cannot predict and control anything, but must try something and then see what happens.   If it works keep it, but then keep on refining it through further PDCA.  It is a constant process of learning through practical experience and cataloguing that learning.  The perspective of the leaders of lean six sigma, or theory of constraints, often starts with the assumption that if we do enough upfront analysis and understand the system through statistics or simulation, we will be able to predict what will work and control the process.  The process becomes a static entity that exists alone and can be operated on.  These are totally different world views and lead to totally different approaches to managing change.

Morris: You note that the word sensei means teacher “but it implies much more.” Please explain. For example, what are the defining characteristics of a world-class sensei?

Liker:  In Japan the concept of the master—apprentice relationship is very natural culturally.  More senior people who have experience and wisdom are obliged to teach younger people who want to learn.  Younger people respect elders who have been there, if they have a learning orientation and actually have wisdom, and want to learn from them.  This collaborative learning is the key to craftsmanship and working toward mastery of fundamental skills.  The world-class sensei has gone through many, many PDCA cycles and developed a level of mastery.  He knows that to learn a student must himself go through these learning cycles—he cannot be told what the final solutions are.  He has to experience for himself the trial and error.  So the sensei will set a challenging target and allow the student to struggle, occasionally asking questions to redirect the thinking of the student, or perhaps giving hints if the student is too far off track.  So there is space to learn and develop, but support and feedback to help guide the learning.

Morris: However different the case studies you discuss in Section Two (Chapters 6-12) may be in most other respects, what do all seven share in common in terms of how lean transformation was achieved?

Liker:  They are all based on a philosophy of PDCA and the role of a sensei as a teacher and coach who gives the students space and support to learn.  The sensei are teaching how to think about problems and work systematically through PDCA.  There are various tools to aid this learning.  One common tool is visual management so that the whole group can easily understand the current condition compared to the target.

Morris: What are the most significant differences between “good” and “bad” lean thinking?

Liker:  The easiest way to explain it is that bad lean thinking is mechanistic and good lean thinking is organic systems thinking as I defined these earlier.  The result of bad lean thinking is to view lean transformation as a toolkit to see and remove waste led by lean experts, while good lean thinking leaders to developing people who can start to see waste and understand a systematic way to continually improve their processes toward a clear set of targets.

Morris: With all due respect to theories, strategies, methodologies, etc., I still think process improvement and, indeed, organization transformation begin or end with the mindset of those who will lead the initiatives. Do you agree? If so, please describe the leadership mindset that successful continuous improvement requires in terms of its core concepts, its values, and how it frames reality.

Liker:  In the last chapter we focus most on leadership talking about the role of middle management, lean advisors, and senior management.   At all levels there needs to be an understanding of the organic way of thinking about PDCA and a passion for developing one’s ability to continually improve processes and systems, while developing people.  This takes patience and a belief that investments in developing people will pay off in the long run.  Long-term thinking is essential as a foundation for developing these capabilities as I explained in The Toyota Way.

Morris: Look ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you expect to be the greatest challenge that Toyota will face? Any advice?

Liker:  It seems to me that the last 3-5 years of the greatest global recession in history, one of the worst beat downs by the Americans about safety issues, and then the greatest earthquake in the modern history of Japan is quite a light for any organization to deal with.  Toyota has worked hard to learn from all these crises and believes they are much stronger and better able to adapt to the future compared to before the recession.  They have very bold ideas for the future, many of them revolving around sustainability and environmental friendliness while putting smiles on the faces of customers.  They have a loaded pipeline with new product.  The challenge is that the whole industry is getting stronger and more competitive, but a Toyota way principle is that competition is good to raise the aspirations of Toyota and ultimately benefit customers and society.

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Jeff Liker cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:


University of Michigan:

Toyota Way Academy:

And coming soon, but not yet: Jeffrey


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