The Real Role of Managers

As well as being a Lean Specialist I also run Japan Lean Experience industry benchmarking tours with Makoto, which have been running for more than a decade with over 200 tours. They are widely regarded as the number one Lean benchmarking tours in Japan. I’ve recently returned from a tour with a mix of diverse business leaders from around the world. As usual, we all found it a fascinating experience. I’d like to tell you about one particular speaker I was impressed by.

Lean Management Lessons from Taiichi Ohno
Takehiko Harada was the former President of Toyota Taiwan before his retirement. He was trained by Taiichi Ohno, the father of Lean Business in Toyota. Harada is unassuming, polite, humble and happy to share his experiences. During my last tour to Japan, he spoke to our small group about the role of managers. I’ve learnt a lot from his talk and I’d like to share some of that with you.

How Leaders Behave
Let me give you a little context. We’d just had a day of touring some manufacturing facilities. It’s afternoon and we are in workshop mode. Mr Harada has a simple presentation. There’s no bold presentation or anything like that. He’s actually just going to talk to us genuinely and clearly about what it means to be a leader in a Lean organisation, and how a leader should behave.

What Good Leaders Do
Most of Harada’s talk was about behaviours. He mentions all the things that you’d expect from good management. He says we should take initiative, demonstrate good behaviours, lead by example. Good leaders are there to teach and follow up until sustainability takes hold in the business or in a team, and then ensure that sustainability is maintained.

Be Present and Engaging
Harada talks about going to the Gemba or going to the place of work, which Toyota really got right. He told us it doesn’t matter who you are in the hierarchy of a company structure, you need to get out there and walk around. You need to talk to the people who do the work because they actually add value to the products or services that you’re producing as a business. Managers should not to sit in an ivory tower or behind a closed door in the office. Get out there and actually see it for yourself and get the feeling for yourself. Particularly when you’re trying to improve and change a business. You need to be present in the office, factory or workshop, seeing how it’s going, talking and showing an interest, because if you are engaged then everybody else will be engaged. That’s really important.

Removing Road Blocks
One of the really interesting things he said about leadership is that leadership should be changing things that don’t make sense anymore or don’t add value. If it’s just “because we’ve always done it this way” then as a leader, you really should be questioning – Why? A leader needs to be a person who removes any roadblocks to actually change and improve something that’s not adding value anymore.

Strategic Change
Top management should actually be making a strategic change.  They should be guiding the whole company or whole department’s directional change that’s needed. They need to be mindful that they’re not the ones who are actually going to execute the change. They’re building that strategy. At the same time, they need to make sure that they’re engaged with the people who actually do the work. They need to ensure that they can actually make some meaningful differences instead of going with some unrealistic strategy and then not really setting any way of achieving that goal.

The Manager Is Not A Passenger
There’s a quote and it’s an interesting one. I can’t remember exactly where it comes from but Harada said that: a manager is not a passenger. To explain this, he puts up a picture up of something you’ve seen but probably never heard the name of, a palanquin. Historically this was a covered chair used to carry one person, usually someone important. It might be carried on the shoulders of two to six bearers.

Palanquin is a chair carried by bearers for VIP’s –

Support People To Do Their Job
Harada said that a manager is not the passenger in that scenario and they’re not the bearer either. A manager is the person who should build the straw sandals for the people doing the walking, the bearers of the load. That’s what a manager should be doing because if those people don’t have those sandals on their feet, they can’t do their job. I think many managers in the West would find that a surprising redefinition. In my own head, I see this as managers should not consider themselves as important as the passenger, and not do the value adding work or micro-managing the value-adding bearers. The passenger is of course, the customer.

Achieve Goals & Make Customers Happy
If you put that in a modern context, as a manager you are there to support, unlock doors and put in systems. It is your job to create a structure that allows a team to achieve their goals and make your customer happy. There is no point in focusing on costs or how productive someone is. It’s better to focus on how we engage people in Continuous Improvement. How do we help people create Quality? How do we then take that high-quality product or service and shorten the cycle time to get to the customer?  How can we make them a happy customer?  That’s important because that’s when profits happen.

In A Nutshell
The real role of the manager is to serve the people who add value for the customer. How can you be the equivalent of a straw sandal maker? There’s a lot of different ways. You can support the Continuous Improvement process. You can also attend to the important elements of Lean, making flow and driving the quality.

After hearing from Takehiko Harada, I realised that in the post-war period, the Japanese took the best of quality management from industrial America and then combined it with their culture. They incorporated the values of self-sacrifice and teamwork to produce a world’s best practise manufacturing. At the same time, they achieved the world’s best practise for engaging people and culture building which the rest of us can now use to create more efficient and profitable businesses.

Much Respect,

Daniel Giles
Lean and Business Improvement Specialist

If you are interested in any of Daniel’s Lean Training workshops in Perth or reading about his background, please visit this link.