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Norman Bodek and Jeremy Green

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Quality Insider

Zenjidoka: The Power of Self-Reliance, Part 1

The ability to ‘pull the cord’ to address a customer problem must extend throughout the entire organization

Published: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 - 04:30

Jidoka is one of the core principles of the Toyota Production System, one that empowers production-line workers to take immediate action the moment a defect is detected. The worker who discovers the defect pulls a red cord, and the entire assembly line stops. Co-workers and the supervisor rush over to that worker, forming an ad hoc problem-solving team. The team, led by the worker who pulled the cord, quickly works to resolve the problem to prevent any defects from reaching the next operation.

Using jidoka and other tools, Toyota became the quality leader in the automotive industry, admired and respected by customers, competitors, and the media. Unfortunately, Toyota’s reputation for quality has become tarnished due to the well-publicized, sudden, and unintended acceleration problem, and the associated recall since October 2009 of more than 10 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles.

Beginning with certain Lexus models, the first reports to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration of sudden unintended acceleration began in the 1997–2000 time frame, with the first recall coming in 2005 and the second in 2007. One question that’s been raised repeatedly is why did it take so long for Toyota to take definitive action? It appears now that quality and safety problems that should have been addressed immediately were stalled somewhere between the Toyota and Lexus dealers and Toyota headquarters in Japan.

If we just look at the financial consequences of this problem (not forgetting the emotional impact of the resulting injuries and deaths), the cost to Toyota will be measured in the billions, if not tens of billions of dollars, including:
• The cost of recalling and repairing more than 10 million vehicles
• $48.8 million in fines levied by the U.S. government
• Multiple product liability lawsuits, the first of which cost Toyota a reputed $10 million
• Class-action lawsuits by investors due to loss of share value
• Lost market share
• Loss of potential sales to competitors
• The cost of sales incentives
• The cost of public relations, marketing, and advertising campaigns to overcome negative consumer perceptions

Clearly, Toyota needed something more than jidoka.

Welcome to Zenjidoka

Zenjidoka is a new word meaning “total jidoka.” Instead of confining jidoka to the factory floor, zenjidoka extends jidoka to every employee who has any contact with the customer. When an employee hears directly or indirectly about a customer problem, that employee is empowered to use his knowledge, skills, and judgment to immediately take action, even if that action means going against company policy or procedure.

With zenjidoka, employees thousands of miles away from corporate headquarters have management’s trust to make timely and necessary decisions to solve customer problems. This unprecedented level of management respect has two powerful effects:

1. The immediate attention to a customer’s problem by the first person contacted becomes a competitive advantage, building long-term customer loyalty and creating a word-of-mouth grapevine that’s more effective at winning new customers than any marketing, advertising, or incentive campaign.

2. Management's respect for the skills and judgment of the customer-facing work force builds employee self-confidence, loyalty, and most important, self-reliance.

Self-reliance might seem like an old-fashioned concept in this age of Google, where help is a click away. It might bring to mind a pioneer or explorer who is hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from any help and must confidently rely on her knowledge, skill, and self-confidence to overcome a life-threatening situation. In the context of zenjidoka, the danger is not to the individual, but to the company.

What if zenjidoka had always been a part of the Toyota culture? What if the first Toyota employee to hear a customer complain about sudden acceleration was empowered by Toyota with the self-reliance to blaze a problem-solving trail all the way to the office of the Toyota president in Japan, and was celebrated by Toyota management for doing so?

The Harada Method

Takashi Harada and Hidekazu Moriyuki taught a workshop that I recently attended in Osaka, Japan. Harada is a former middle-school teacher who is now revered as a genius in Japan at helping people develop the skills to define and accomplish meaningful, rewarding, and self-fulfilling personal goals. In his own words, the Harada Method is a means to achieve self-reliance.

Incidentally, this Harada Method workshop occurred on March 11, which was the date of the 9.0 Sendai earthquake and tsunami. I have been to Japan 78 times and have felt many earthquakes. During this one, the building we were in shook and swayed for about 5 minutes. I knew this was a big earthquake, but I had no idea it was as large as it was. So with little knowledge of the overall damage done by the earthquake and tsunami, we continued on with the workshop as if nothing bad had happened. It was not until days later that we recognized what a terrible tragedy had come to Japan.

During the workshop, Harada told us the following story:

Uniqlo is one of the fastest growing clothing-store chains in the world, where you can buy fashionable clothing, well made, at very reasonable prices. The stores are filled with merchandise up to the ceiling, all arranged perfectly, folded neatly, and properly displayed. A woman shopper carrying a baby came to a Uniqlo store and asked to use the store phone to call a doctor for her child. The clerk was apologetic and told the woman that the company’s policy manual forbid the use of company telephones by customers. In desperation, she went next door to call an ambulance.

Later she wrote to Tadashi Yanai, Uniqlo’s president, to express her anger and frustration. Fearing negative publicity and personally ashamed by the incident, Yanai called Harada to request that he teach Uniglo employees self-reliance. Now after the training, Yanai’s employees have learned to balance the needs of customers with the needs of the company, and now have a sense of pride and accomplishment when they do the right thing, even if it goes against company policy.

On the flight back from Japan, I told the flight attendant that the “fish” was not good. She apologized but told me to write to the company to complain. She said she could do nothing because the company would listen to a customer, but not to her.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve experienced a problem with a company’s product or service, reported that problem, and heard one or more of the following:

• “We’ve had no reports of that from other customers.”
• “You must be mistaken.”
• “You’ll have to call… ”
• “Are you sure you didn’t… ”
• “You’ll have to speak to a supervisor.”
• “I’m not authorized to help you with that.”
• “I’m sorry; there’s nothing I can do.”


You can probably add to the list. If you’re like me, on hearing this kind of response, you probably feel frustrated and angry, and wonder how such a company can stay in business in this era of Angie’s List, Consumer Reports, and a seemingly endless number of customer rating websites. Why aren’t the people who operate the cash register, answer the phone, or sit behind the counter empowered to help solve customer problems? Why must a problem be elevated to a manager or supervisor? Why aren’t customer service employees trained and encouraged to be self-reliant, to make the decisions necessary to address customer problems?

How can zenjidoka address this absence of self-reliance and make customer service a competitive advantage?

I’ll discuss that and more in Part 2.


About The Author

Norman Bodek and Jeremy Green’s default image

Norman Bodek and Jeremy Green

Norman Bodek is president of PCS Inc. a publishing and consulting company in Vancouver, Washington. In 1979, he started Productivity Press and published hundreds of management books on productivity, quality, and lean manufacturing. He is now an adjunct professor at Portland State University teaching a 10-week course, The Best of Japanese Management Practices. In the fall he will also teach the course at Utah State University. Bodek is also a member of the American Manufacturing Hall of Fame. He is also the author of How to Do Kaizen: A new path to innovation - Empowering everyone to be a problem solver (PCS Inc., 2010).

Jeremy Green is a certified lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, and an ASQ-certified Six Sigma Black Belt and certified quality engineer with 25 years’ experience in manufacturing management and quality. He received his Ph.D. from Indiana State University and his bachelor degree from the University of Illinois. Green is on the board of directors of the Emerald Valley High Performance Enterprise Consortium and has taught public and corporate seminars nationwide in lean manufacturing, Six Sigma, change management, strategic planning, risk management, and the psychology of influence.