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Pulling the Line: Empowering People and Prospects The Toyota Way

September 25th, 2013

Note: for a summary of the Toyota Way and Jeffrey Liker’s book on the subject, check the following link: http://www.panview.nl/en/lean-production/toyota-way-j-liker-summary

I spent last week training the regional managers of a service organization. The week of training began with an offsite session at Toyota Motor Manufacturing-Kentucky, or TMMK, as the award-winning operation is known. To a person (and there are 7,500 of them), TMMK operates on the principles of The Toyota Way, from the General Manager through every person on every team in the plant.

One of the most empowering pillars of the Toyota Way is the ability of any member of any production team to stop the assembly line. Each team member knows each standard process, and if something occurs that a team member knows or suspects is not standard, he or she can stop production by pulling an overhead line. Pulling the line stops the production process at the team’s station and alerts the team members and leader of a potential problem.  Production does not start up again until the problem is resolved.  

In their subsequent training sessions, some of the service organization managers commented that leading a service organization was entirely different from managing a production operation. TMMK was interesting, but it wasn’t really relevant to them. 

Until they pulled the line.

It started with the announcement of a goal expressed as a percentage increase.  Each of the managers was asked to achieve the goal through their regional teams during the coming year. This top-down goal generated a range of reactions. Some wanted to set their own goal.  Others felt that if the goal came from the top, so should the ideas for achieving the goal.  All agreed that that there was no standard process for them to work towards the goal.

The training agenda moved on to another session, but the managers and their concerns did not.  The unresolved questions about the goal dominated discussions during breaks and undermined engage-ment. This team of managers had pulled the line. 

As the leader of the training, I had a choice: continue with the agenda and ignore the undercurrent of frustration, or listen and make adjustments.

That night I made adjustments. Some of these adjustments meant taking risks – including making a business case for the adjustments and explaining to senior executives who had prepared presentations weeks in advance that their session times needed to be cut in half – not a comfortable conversation.  But the line had been stopped, and listening to those closest to the work had become more than The Toyota Way. Stopping was the only way forward.

The next morning, training started with three words: We heard you. The managers then worked in teams of four to discuss the goal and identify a process to achieve it. True, they did not fully develop a standard process. But they agreed that engaging and listening to the people who would be responsible for implementing the process in their regions was the best way to achieve the goal.

Ultimately, the managers realized that pulling the line is not a power play.  It’s an opportunity and responsibility to create and deliver value.  Whether we manufacture products or deliver services, run a sales department or manage a business unit, the line is being pulled by our employees, customers and prospects when our standard processes fail to deliver value.  It’s up to us to listen and adjust.