Keep Your Head in the Game

Chances are you are familiar with Lean Manufacturing, TPS (Toyota Production System), Value Stream Mapping, or other processes that have shaped the way work gets done, and done with quality and efficiency.  Developing processes is one of the things that leaders do.  Processes are what tie the people of an organization to the objectives of that organization.

For many, the TPS was the benchmark of how manufacturing should eliminate waste and inconsistency.  What is interesting is that there is a “socio” part of this equation – the people side of manufacturing.  The TPS was designed so that an individual worker could stop the production line if they saw something that did not support the TPS ideals.  It was also an expectation that people participate in problem solving and continuous improvement. To improve performance and reduce waste, Toyota started utilizing more and more robots in their production facilities, eliminating unnecessary movements and perfecting work processes.

But something funny happened on the way to the bank.  Just last week, Toyota announced that they were removing some of the robots from their key production cells, and replacing them with what they called ‘gods’, or Kami-sama in Japanese. These are experienced masters who have demonstrated the ability to make anything.  For a company that has been the standard in production powerhouses, replacing robots with humans seems like a 180-degree change of direction.

The masters, or ‘gods’ as they refer to them, are making a comeback because Toyota recognizes that there are some things that a robot just cannot do.  It cannot improve a process.  It cannot determine if small adjustments are necessary.  It cannot develop new skills and figure out ways to improve itself.  Bottom line, a robot cannot learn and as such cannot be part of developing processes.  For those skills, you need human interaction and innovation; and you need leadership.

Developing processes is one of the things that leaders do and why a leader needs to keep the heads of all team members in the game: to learn, to solve problems, and to innovate. Toyota realized that although the automated process did improve efficiency and got rid of many of the forms of muda (waste) the process could not make itself better.

To improve a process, you need team members who are “mindful”, who think, analyze, and can make changes. And, those team members need a leader who can focus them on meaningful change, encourage learning, hold high expectations for problem solving and support them in continuous improvement.

As a leader, no doubt some of your work will be enhanced through automation where it will cut out waste and improve efficiency.  But, as Toyota is learning, when it gets in the way of process improvement and innovation, consider going back to your people skills, and providing leadership that keeps your team’s heads in the game.  It is one of the tasks that leaders do.

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