John Bicheno reviews The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership by Jeffrey Liker and Gary Convis, McGraw Hill, 2012

Jeffrey Liker has established himself as the author on the Toyota system. This book is Liker’s best since the groundbreaking Toyota Way. Liker’s co-author this time is a former executive VP at Toyota USA.

The extended prologue covers the history of Toyota USA, including comment on the recall crisis and the tsunami. Hansei – not a defence, but an admission that slippage awaits the unwary and the goal is ever challenging. Subsequent chapters shed new light on established lean concepts such as self development, coaching, kaizen, and policy deployment. Toyota USA is a case study that runs throughout the book – and is terrifying both in its singularity of purpose and also its detail. That sounds like a contradiction, but we should recall Mencken’s famous quotation that ‘for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.’

The central theme is built around the Leadership Development Model that has four segments: commit to self development, coach and develop others, support daily kaizen, and create vision and align goals. Each segment involves PDCA. What is striking is the similarities with the brain research described elsewhere in this issue: a belief that perfection develops through practice, does not require ‘genius’, but does require attitude and respect, together with persistent coaching and feedback. No miracle psychologist with an assessment scheme; just hard, daily work at the gemba. Like a tree, ‘T’ type leaders have deep rooted experience that allows broad leadership skills to develop.

Here we pick out just one of the ‘gems’ amongst many that every reader will find in this book. It is the story of Yuri who moved from BMW to Toyota, but made a good impression when he was prepared to drop a few management levels in taking the new job. He was then required to stand in the famous chalk circle and observe. During the first 20 minutes he noted five opportunities, but was told that 25 were expected! From this experience, Yuri moved into real problem solving, involving bolt tightening. Five whys with a vengeance! At BMW, the solution was just to upgrade the torque wrench. That was not acceptable, and he was told to look and think again. And again, and again. Eventually he homed in on the real causes: operators not listening for the right sound, standardised work, and maintenance issues. The result: a two-thirds reduction on defect rate and a cost reduction from $9 to $1.50 per unit. Patience, persistence, attitude. One wonders how many managers would have gone for the quick ‘n easy high-tech solution.

It is not often I would give an ‘essential’ tag to a book on lean. But here is certainly one case where it is merited.