Learning to Love Problems

“When people tell me how well Toyota is doing, I say that it simply isn’t so; Toyota has lots of problems.”

Atsushi Niimi
Former President of Toyota North America

Several years ago I attended a seminar on “lean manufacturing” hosted by Japan Management Association. The keynote speaker was Atsushi Niimi, at the time President of Toyota North America. The crux of Niimi’s presentation was the importance of developing employees, with an emphasis on nurturing what he called “the challenging mind.” Implied in this statement is the amazing power of the human spirit.

Niimi made one point that really stuck with me: getting employees to actively seek out problems is the key challenge in making the Toyota production system run.

So simple and yet so difficult.

He went on to say that in Toyota’s North American subsidiaries, he struggled to communicate to local employees the precise meaning of the Japanese word mondai, defined in the dictionary as “problem”. Niimi said he didn’t like the dictionary’s definition, and rhetorically asked if native English speakers in the audience could suggest a better word. The closest equivalent he could come up with was “challenge”, but even this didn’t satisfy him. His point was that “problem” has a much more negative connotation in English than the Japanese equivalent, certainly how Toyota uses it in the workplace. This is a great example of how culture affects not only the way we define words, but how words influence our behavior.

To drive home his point, Niimi said that whenever he asked his American managers the status of operations, they too often said “no problem!”–to which he always responded: “You have no problem? That’s a big problem. Now go find a PROBLEM!”

He went on to quote Taiichi Ohno–legendary pioneer of the Toyota Production System–as saying that not having a problem was a bad thing. Ohno’s philosophy was straightforward: solving problems is a continuous process that he likened to wringing out a dry towel. No matter how dry the towel appears to be, there is always more moisture you can squeeze out. Similarly, no matter how well your factory seems to be running there will always be more waste to squeeze out. And this is one of Ohno’s most valuable, enduring legacies: Toyota’s cultural aversion to the trappings of complacency.

Many American companies have tried and failed to implement “lean” and “TQM” philosophies in their organizations. One key root cause of failure lies in a critical misunderstanding of what “quality” means.

In the next post we’ll examine some basic questions about quality, such as: Where does “quality” come from? Is it something that resides inside the widget? Is it a process? Or is it something deeper, more spiritual in nature?

Stay tuned.


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