Leading with Dirty Hands

Installment #3 continued from:

 Driving Change with a Samurai Boss(1) 

The Power of the Team(2)

“How can you expect to do your job without getting your hands dirty?”

–Eiji Toyoda, Former Chairman, Toyota Motor Company

One thing our company had going for it—and I mean this sincerely—is that no work was beneath anyone, including our boss, who required us to work on the very production lines we were improving, if for no other reason than to fully understand the process through direct experience. (Japanese call this way of thinking “genba shugi” or sometimes “genchi genbutsu,” what I call “go-to-the-spot philosophy,” a practice that’s institutionalized in most Japanese factories.)

An equally compelling reason to work on the line was the human connections we made interacting with the production operators. Nothing like contributing to a team effort to build camaraderie. It was always humbling to fumble through the processes, but invaluable in getting input and support from the folks who would ultimately have to live with the new process design.

Interestingly, even though Japan is a hierarchical Confucian society with a clear pecking order and elitist tendencies to boot, based on my experience in Japanese factories, Japanese managers are much more egalitarian than my compatriots in the US workplace who profess to love equality. Let’s start with the obvious: no neckties; Japanese all wear the same uniforms including the president. There’s no special “executive cafeteria” either, so everyone eats the same food; no reserved parking spots for the president, no private jets, not even private offices. Did I mention Japanese leaders spend a lot of time in the plant getting their hands dirty?

Drucker alludes to the “egalitarian” contradiction when he points out the difference in roles between an industrial engineer in Japan versus in the West. To wit: “In the West, the industrial engineer starts out with the assumption of resistance to his approach by the employee, whether in manual or in clerical work. In Japan the industrial engineer tends to complain that the employees expect and demand too much from him.”

Drucker nails it. And this unexpected value contradiction has institutionalized elitism written all over it: the Western industrial engineer sees himself as the “thinker,” the smart guy with the degree who makes decisions then issues commands top-down to the “uneducated” associates. Of course they’re going to resist!

The Japanese industrial engineer, in contrast, sees himself in more of a servant role supporting production associates, the very folks who create value for the organization; he acknowledges the value of the operators’ practical knowledge and experience, and acts as facilitator in helping associates improve their own work areas.

In the same vein, in many Japanese manufacturing companies all employees are required to start their careers working on the production line so they can understand where the money is made and lost. (And yes, it’s a great way to keep everyone humble.) This means that most Japanese managers you’ll meet in the manufacturing industry—including the executives at the very top—aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and get dirty.

As a consultant I once found myself on a production line in rural Indiana assembling dashboards with several Japanese executives, because a snowstorm kept half the production workers from showing up on time. When the associates finally made it to work they were awestruck by the sight of the Japanese President and his Japanese VP of Operations furiously plugging in wire harnesses. One associate even remarked that she couldn’t imagine an American company president ever doing that.

And herein lies a great Japanese attribute that transcends culture: the Japanese leader with dirty hands will garner much respect in blue-collar cultures around the world. It’s a Japanese strength that facilitates and encourages change in organizations through leaders’ personal displays of empathy, humility and hard work.

Being the dorokusai Japanese consultants that we were, our hands-on approach proved to be a huge asset in getting things done. And what we lacked in finesse we made up for in sheer effort. We were relentless bulldozers that “smelled like the earth.” It wasn’t always pretty but we got the job done.

But before we jumped into the trenches, we had to first get our players’ heads into the productivity game. My mentors had the foresight to launch our projects by explaining the ABCs of productivity, starting with the big picture, and eventually moving to the details–of which there were many.

We tried our best to avoid “industrial engineering speak” and just tell the story in plain English. In our case, the story was about productivity, so we started by defining our terms, and took it from there. That’s what we’ll cover in the next installment: The Anatomy of Productivity

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

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