Lean Leadership at Toyota

February 1, 2012
By Darren Dolcemascolo

The Toyota Way series of books have provided much insight to what happens behind the scenes at Toyota in both Japan and North America.  While there is overlap between many of the books, The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership, by Jeff Liker and Gary Convis, is worth reading for any lean practitioner, particularly those in executive leadership.

The authors lay out a useful framework from which to understand the concepts of leadership practiced at Toyota.  While no other organization will operate exactly like Toyota, the book will aid in understanding how to apply the principles of leadership to be successful.  Let's examine some of the keys to effective leadership as delineated by the authors. 

First, the authors talk about the uniqueness of lean: it is not a short-term cost reduction program.  It is not something that can be "implemented" in the sense that it has a start and end.  Because of the misconceptions about lean, many lean efforts have failed or at least failed to stick.  The Toyota Way to lean leadership, on the other hand, is an ongoing development and learning process.

Next, the authors identify a multi-stage leadership model based on their experience (in the case of Convis) and in-depth research (in the case of Liker).  The four stages of this model are:

1. Commit to Self-Development
2. Coach and Develop Others.
3. Support Daily Kaizen.
4. Create Vision and Align Goals.

Each of these concepts has its own dedicated chapter in the book that incudes anecdotes that exemplify each stage.  For example, in the chapter on Self-Development, Gary Convis tells the story of his early days at NUMMI.  Unlike the typical organization that hires a GM, Toyota did not expect Gary to move right into his role (despite his vast experience with GM and Ford).  Instead, after extensive training in Japan, Gary was assigned an executive coordinator from Japan (a sensei) to work with him and continue the self-development process.
In the latter chapters of the book, Gary Convis talks about how the lean leadership principles he learned at Toyota were able to help him successfully turn around Dana Holding Corporation, a major automotive parts manufacturer.  After filing for bankruptcy in 2008, the company had reported an annualized ROE (Return on Equity) of 17.6% by early 2011.

There is much to learn from Toyota when it comes to leadership; I highly recommend reading this book to better understand how to successfully use these concepts.


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