Coaching Lean Without Knowing | Bob Emiliani

“I have long felt that people have listened too intently to the analysts who have not actually “played the game” – the interpreters of Toyota’s management system, not the people who actually created it. I think that it is easy for all to agree that someone who actually created something is a much better guide than someone who studied it second-hand.[…] Original sources are the best sources to learn from and should form the fundamental basis of your understanding of TPS and Lean. ”

Sourced through Bob Emiliani

Michel Baudin‘s comments: The originators of Toyota’s production and management system are all dead. This includes Sakichi, Kiichiro and Eiji Toyoda, Taiichi Ohno, Shigeo Shingo, and others, which makes it difficult to learn from them through personal communication. We can read what little they published, or rely on the generations that came after them. The people Emiliani shows to the right of Taiichi Ohno as “originators,” Fujio Cho and Chihiro Nakao, actually are disciples of the originators, which isn’t quite the same. As Emiliani sees it, the alternative to learning from these people is learning from “interpreters” who, as he implies in the title, don’t know what they are talking about because they had no hand in creating it. Are these really the only choices?

If this were true, the only way to learn about mass production would through the writings of Charles Sorensen or Henry Ford ghostwriter Samuel Crowther.  In fact, there are many fields of knowledge where going to original sources is definitely not the easiest way to learn. For example, except for the believers in Great Books education, nobody goes back to Isaac Newton to learn calculus.

Unless you are working for Toyota, your goal is not to learn its system per se but to learn from it to support your own improvement efforts, regardless of whether you are a manager, an engineer, a production supervisor or a production operator. The originators’ ideas don’t have to be interpreted as if they were holy scripture. We need to understand the context in which these ideas were first applied and the problems they were intended to solve. Then we can assess their relevance to our problems and adopt/adapt them, or use them as inspiration for new ideas while remaining consistent with principles.

And everyone has limitations, including originators and their disciples. They have deeper and better information about one company’s systems but, if they are retirees, it may not be current. Their long service in the industry where they made their contributions may make it difficult for them to grasp the different issues of other industries. And if they are still involved with the company, they may be restricted in what they are allowed to share.

Toyota, for example, teaches simplified versions of its system even to its own, non-Japanese employees. I have discussed this earlier with Bob Emiliani. What drew my attention to it is that the same pillar of the Toyota Way is called Respect For Humanity (人間尊重) in Japanese, Respect For People in English, and People-Oriented (以人为本) in Mandarin. For our purposes, we don’t want to learn a simplified version of TPS but the full one, and it takes detective work.

If you have studied an approach rather than originated it, your coaching or advice is only based on 2nd-hand knowledge if you have not applied it in real situations. Once you have, your personal experience of what works and what doesn’t in what circumstances is 1st-hand knowledge.

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6 comments on “Coaching Lean Without Knowing | Bob Emiliani

  1. To me, lean is like learning how to ride a bicycle. Studying the rules of the road helps for safe driving, but most importantly you just have to ride the bike! At the beginning you will fall down a few times, but you learn from your mistakes and become better at it.

  2. Hi All,

    Regardless of the pedigree of a specific teacher or coach, the “doer” still has to master the “teaching/coaching” by putting whatever knowledge/insight/understanding into action. As is true for any potentially Olympic-caliber athlete, there’s a great deal of training that need to take place; often under the guidance and tutelage of a proven capable coach, but that’s not always the sole or primary factor that goes into determining an athlete’s or team’s level of performance. That said, yes… having a good knowledge and understand of how the overall game/sport/event (in terms of fundamental principles and methods) needs to be played can go a very long way in preparing/conditioning and athlete or team to be highly competitive. BUT, after a certain point, any on-going improvement (in terms of realizing an athlete’s or team’s fullest potential) is really up to the will and effort of the athlete/team. In few other places/instances is this fact made in quite so dramatic and relevant manner as happens to be in the case of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team’s gold medal victory.

    In this case example, let’s recall that all the players on the US team were true amateurs who – in all of their matches, including the final match against the USSR Team – defeated very seasoned (i.e., “professional grade”) players that played on many of the opposing teams. And the US Hockey Team coach, Herb Brooks… was he the ideal choice as coach by virtue of having played the game in high school, in college and on 8 National and Olympic US teams and coached in the NCAA arena? In all likelihood, he picked up a great deal of knowledge and skill during those years, but he never played on or coached a gold medal winning Olympic team. In fact, his collegiate coaching record looked good, but not great… Brooks finished his collegiate coaching with a record of 175 wins, 101 losses and 20 ties.

    And with that thought in mind, let’s ask the question as to how makes for the best teacher/coach when it comes to achieving a goal or feat that has never before been attempted? Who taught the NASA team of engineers and scientists and technicians that were responsible for putting men on the moon and returning them safely to earth… not once, but multiple times? And let’s not forget how short a time frame those accomplishments actually occur within. Good, fundamental, rapid/adaptive problem-solving, accelerated learning via the willingness to learn through trial and error, and the willingness to accept failure in stride are the key elements that are really most required to be successful in any challenging endeavor. Just ask Wilbur and Orville how they mastered sustained, controlled, powered flight in a manned machine that is heavier than air… and they did it in record time (compared to all the other aviator wanabees of the time).

  3. Michel – You misinterpreted my thoughts regarding the interpreters. Please focus on what I actually said, not what I may or may not have implied. The context was clearly people who have had hands-on experience with TPS vs. those who have studied from a distance.

    I said: “…people striving to advance progressive management in their organizations should listen to the originators first, followed by the interpreters…. Find and study the original sources of information. That way you will know if the interpretations are accurate or not, what’s missing, etc.” That’s a basic rule for doing good research and assuring accuracy in learning.

    I did not say that interpretations are useless. I said: “…it is not an either-or proposition. Original sources and interpretations can complement one another. And later re-interpretations can be better than first or second generation interpretations – or not.”

    I know that like me, you have a great interest in and respect for original sources of information. This includes books they have written, teachings from disciples, etc. And, as you know much better than me, it’s tricky interpreting TPS; language is just one of many difficulties.

  4. Bob – I agree that the rest of your article is more nuanced than the excerpts I picked. “Originators” evokes the founders who were there at the beginning and laid the foundation, not the current practitioners who added a new wrinkle to the system last month. It seems that you meant it more broadly.

    Yes, people who want to improve their organizations should listen to experts with hands-on experience. I don’t think, however, that the originators should be put on a pedestal and their ideas treated as sacred. They deserve credit, but TPS/Lean is management and technology, not a religion. It is a matter of reason, not faith.

  5. Hi All,
    Some food for thought/consideration…

    Given the amount of time that has passed and evolutionary change that has occurred since the first underpinnings of the Toyota Production System (and the Toyota Way as a combined/integrated SYSTEM) were laid down – by the so-called originators… whoever might they might be – AND who is to say when the TPS/Toyota Way stopped being “originated” and started to be “evolved/adapted”? The most critical point in this blog thread comes down to where does one most effectively draw that line? In essence, I see the emergent nature of this SYSTEM (and any such similar open system) to be as much influenced by the environment in which it exists – and to which it must adapt in order to survive and thrive – as being equally, if not more so, responsible for determining how and why the SYSTEM operates/behaves the way it does. Ergo, the question arises as to what’s the best place to start when studying such a system with the intent of developing and evolving similar SYSTEM CAPABILITIES? Why would it make the most sense – if at all – to begin with the so-called “originators.” Would it not make more sense to look first at one’s desired future-state or destination and work back from there regarding what might make most sense as a “jumping-off” or “launching” point?

    Going back to the Wibur and Orville Wright example, would it really make the most sense to be taught/coached by them (if that were possible) when it comes to developing a viable aircraft for use in today’s marketspace? Or would it make more sense to begin the process of doing by working with and/or learning from those who have been most responsible for pushing the evolutionary envelope in terms of making the overall SYSTEM what it is today? Would it not be a much more efficient and effective way to “master” the underlying thinking and behaving principles? And would it not be more in keeping with those ORIGINAL underlying thinking and behaving principles to engage in the same sorts of hands-on approaches to rapid/adaptive-problem solving and accelerated learning (at the individual, team/group, departmental, and enterprise-wide levels) that have been consistently employed from the beginning to build and evolve the SYSTEM?

    In this regard/context, would it not make more sense to take into consideration the ABILITY of the coach/teacher to TRANSLATE THEORY/THINKING INTO PRACTICE and transfer both THE NECESSARY KNOWLEDGE AND CAPABILITY in the most efficient and effective manner possible? What ASSUMPTIONS would have to be made in order for one to make the assertion that IF AND ONLY IF ONE HAS BEEN THERE AND DONE THAT then they and only they are the MOST QUALIFIED AND CAPABLE to teach/coach a new cadre of players to compete most efficiently and effectively in today’s (and tomorrow’s) market? What would Wibur and Orville likely say? What would America’s pioneers in the space race likely have to say?

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