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Jeff Liker

Quality Insider

Five “Why?” Not Five “Who?”

Start pointing fingers and engagement is over.

Published: Friday, March 26, 2010 - 07:55

I  recently spoke to an executive from a Canadian manufacturing company that supplies Toyota and has several years of experience implementing the Toyota Production System (TPS). He said his biggest disappointment was that their corporate culture still doesn’t support surfacing problems. People are afraid they will be blamed, so they hide problems.

This seems to be a generic problem across manufacturing and service. When I interviewed Fujio Cho, the first head of human resources for Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky plant, who is Japanese, he said that what most startled him when he first came to the United States was that Americans didn’t like to say they had a problem. The very word “problem” suggested blame. Cho said his biggest problem was getting Americans to pull the andon chord. I asked what he did and he said he had to go to the shop floor every day (as president) and encourage them to please pull the chord even if it stopped the line. Eventually the employees felt comfortable about pulling it.

It’s a generic problem. I believe it has to do with fear and a feeling that exposing a problem suggests we aren’t competent. The challenge is to convince people that there are always problems and a problem is an opportunity to improve the system, not point fingers at individuals. But this takes years of very consistent behavior. Start pointing the finger and it is over. It also helps to have clear agreements on what should be happening and then highlighting deviations from the plan objectively.

The point of visual management is to clearly highlight problems, as is the kanban system, and the metric boards. In all cases, we should judge the quality of the lean system by asking: Is the standard clearly defined and visible? When there is a deviation from the standard is it immediately clear and visible—ideally at the moment it occurs? Do we check every day for deviations, prioritize them, and work at solving them? When someone highlights a problem, do we immediately go to work to understand the root cause and take corrective action?

In my experience, the answer to these questions is usually, no. In some types of service work, it’s more challenging to see the problems. Then we are left to focus on schedules, cost, and general performance relative to targets on key performance indicators. The obeya (big room management) used for product development at Toyota has become a powerful tool in service organizations to track progress vs. target by function. People need to be responsible and accountable for performance—and that is different from blame. Being accountable means they highlight problems, take responsibility for ensuring that the problems are solved, and show a sincere desire to improve, including themselves, when they understand what happened.


About The Author

Jeff Liker’s picture

Jeff Liker

Jeffrey K. Liker, Ph.D., is professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan and principle of Optiprise Inc. Liker has authored or co-authored more than 75 articles and book chapters and nine books. He is author of the international best-seller, The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World's Greatest Manufacturer (McGraw-Hill, 2004), which speaks to the underlying philosophy and principles that drive Toyota's quality and efficiency-obsessed culture. The companion (with David Meier), The Toyota Way Fieldbook (McGraw Hill, 2005) details how companies can learn from the Toyota Way principles. His book with Jim Morgan, The Toyota Product Development System, (Productivity Press, 2006) is the first that details the product development side of Toyota.


Getting past the "Fear Factor"

It is engrained from our childhood in America that we must be the best. When we do not perform up to the expectations of others and especially ourselves, it is difficult to step out and move past the fear factor. In the workplace today, employees are faced with loss of employment due to economic conditions. "If I make too many mistakes, I can be replaced." In the heatlhcare industry, we are particularly concerned as highly educated professionals do not want to be chastized by their peers, let alone by their employer.
To change a culture of an organization takes many years. Edward Deming's point about driving out organizational fear should be on the top of all CEOs' priority lists for the quality and safety of all. Good article and look to see you expand on the topic.
Christina Bowles RN EdD CPHQ CTC
Ball Memorial Hospital ~ A Clarian Health Partner
2401 W University Ave; Muncie, IN 47303

Blame your inspectors, perhaps...

As far as people hiding from blame goes, I have seen various degrees of this at different companies. One thing I have noticed is that the attitude of the frontline quality inspectors makes a big difference. Quality, unfortunately, can attract a lot of small-minded twits who think that their job is to catch people out. When such people are the inspectors, problems start getting buried.
When I was an inspector, I was very careful to maintain a friendly, team-oriented approach. I wasn't there to catch people, I was there to check work-- like an proofreader reviewing somebody else's writing. The production people were doing skilled work I wasn't capable of doing, so I was always respectful whenever an error turned up. People figured out pretty quickly that I wasn't there to burn them, and they opened up as a result. I've had people point out to me work they knew they had done wrong-- stuff I easily could have missed-- because they knew they could trust me and because they wanted help in getting things right. This is by far the better way to conduct inspections.
It really is true that most people really do want to do a good job. Quality inspectors who assume an adversarial posture make it hard for this to happen. Inspectors who put the team first, and see themselves as a small part of that team, promote the kind of open atmosphere you describe in your article. If an organization has a lot of problems getting hidden, one good place to start looking for remedies is the attitudes of the inspectors. Inspectors who are out to get people are a detriment to the company.