I often remember the story of when a friend of mine, Jon Ballantyne, was tutored by a top Toyota sensei (trainer). The supplier Jon worked for was here in the US, so Toyota sent one of their top-five coaches to live in America for three years to help them improve. The sensei’s job was to teach the fundamentals of the Toyota Production System (TPS) so that the supplier could be a stronger business partner to Toyota.
The sensei arrived and immediately introduced the 5 S’s: sort, simplify, sweep, standardize, and self-discipline. He explained to my friend that TPS started and ended with 5S and that 5S was over 50% of the system. When asked where the company should begin, the sensei replied, “We will start with the first ‘S’. If you can learn the first one before I leave in three years, we can move on to the second.”
Jon was the production manager at one of the company’s many plants, and every week he received a visit from the Toyota sensei. Together, they would walk the floor of the plant, with the sensei asking questions about different, visible non-value added items and Jon trying to provide answers. Nearly every question related to “why” things were organized or placed the way they were. Most conversations went something like this:
Sensei: (pointing to an untamed pile of non-value added equipment in the corner) “What is that?”
Jon: “That is equipment left over from a big assembly project last week.”
Sensei: “Why is it there?”
Jon: “Hmm, let’s see…I think the team thought we would need it again soon. I will check with them and get an answer for you.”
Sensei: “Take care of it before next week.”
These conversations often put my friend, the manager, in an uncomfortably honest position. He struggled to find reasons 5S was not being followed, or why items were still left out. When the next week rolled around, the sensei would always bring the issue back to Jon’s attention, anticipating the identified wastes to have been eliminated from the different working areas. The expectation was that no issue from the past week should still be an issue the next week. Consequently, visit after visit, the manager would find himself answering hard questions, or calling over supervisors to try to explain (or give excuses) to the sensei why their plant had areas that were unsorted or not adding value to the goals and priorities at hand.
After a few months of these somewhat difficult conversations, the manager realized the real lesson being taught with the seemingly simple and repetitive questions from the sensei. The next time the sensei came for his regular walk-through, the conversation went differently:
Sensei: (pointing to a fresh pile of unsorted items) “What is that?
Jon: “That? That is the sign of a bad manager.”
At first, the sensei gave the manager an inquisitive look. After all, Jon was that manager. But the sensei soon understood that his answer was correct. Both the manger and the sensei knew what that answer meant: the manager had failed to do something about an obvious issue or opportunity, he was receiving a gentle reminder about the situation, and he would take care of it. So after some consideration, the sensei accepted the answer, and the manager unfailingly ensured that problems were resolved by the next week’s visit.
Because of this story, I now look at issues differently. Whenever I walk through my own plant or warehouse—or look at my desk, our break room, or my own bathroom and see things unsorted, disorderly, and out of place, I tend to ask myself the sensei‘s question, “What is that?” Immediately, I hear my friend’s sobering answer, ringing in my ear: “That?… That is the sign of a bad manager.” Then, I do something about it.
Special thanks to Marc Monson for writing this article, and for Jon Ballantyne who let us share his experience.
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