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Jon Miller

Six Sigma

Challenging ‘Challenge’ Within the Toyota Way

How can we tell whether a challenge’s obstacles are surmountable?

Published: Monday, November 19, 2012 - 09:28

At the heart of the Toyota Way are two pillars, continuous improvement and respect for people. These are supported by five values: challenge, improvement (kaizen), seeing for yourself (genchi genbutsu), respect, and teamwork. The word “challenge” means either a tangible thing, such as competition or obstacles to overcome, or the action to engage in a contest, adventure, or experiment that may succeed or fail.

It seems clear enough that kaizen, genchi genbutsu, respect, and teamwork are intended as principles to turn into action, but the meaning and intent of challenge is more ambiguous. Here is an image of the Toyota Way pillars and foundation from Toyota’s website.
The Toyota Way pillars.jpg
When we are faced with challenges, too many times it is not by choice. Neither is it clear whether these conditions are actual challenges (as in surmountable obstacles) rather than muri (unreasonable burden of work). We do not want to pursue great dangers when we should merely be striving to improve ourselves. If we are to learn from and put the Toyota Way into practice, it would seem that making this distinction is critical.

There seems to be some confusion even among how “challenge” is described at Toyota. It is described thus on the Toyota website as the people foundation or inspirational way of working:

“Toyota believes that an effective workplace is one that allows people of different ages, genders, ethnic groups, and cultural backgrounds to work together as a team. We believe in challenges and the importance of decisions based on personal investigation, efficient fact-finding, and in-depth analysis. Working at Toyota is also an exercise in long-term thinking.”

We believe in challenges. What does this mean? We cannot believe in challenges in the same way that we believe in ghosts or don’t believe in ghosts. Challenges are unquestionably real, however subjective. Does it mean, “We believe in facing challenges rather than running away” or “We believe in giving ourselves challenges where none exist”? The latter seems most likely, based on the "no problem is a problem" mentality at Toyota and the notion of constant dissatisfaction with the status quo.

On the Toyota Europe website there is a one-by-one definition of the building blocks:

“Challenge: This means not only embracing challenges, but also challenging what we know and do, and being prepared to change things to make improvements.”

This is a bit more helpful and addresses the change element of continuous improvement through questioning the current standards, paradigms, knowledge, best practices, and so forth. This is the active form of challenging. However, “embracing challenges” means being responsive or reactive to crises that come our way, whether we welcome them or not.

In yet another common explanation of the Toyota Way, challenge is explained in a different context that is both proactive (vision-setting) and reactive (meeting emergent challenges):

“We form a long-term vision, meeting challenges with courage and creativity to realize our dreams.”

Although this is thematically consistent with challenge as an aspirational thing, or striving to realize one’s dreams, the wording emphasizes responding to challenges rather than challenging our own internal conditions. Both forms of challenge are necessary but quite different things, requiring different behaviors, leadership, and tactics.

Along the same lines, on the Toyota Global website there is an entire index page dedicated to “challenges” faced and overcome during the company’s history. This is challenge in the reactive sense.

In the Toyota owner’s online magazine, This Way, the value of challenge is explained as, “At Toyota, we’re always challenging ourselves, looking at how we can improve what we do, and thinking up new ideas that will make customers’ lives that little bit better.”

This example is more inward-looking and proactive. This is the broadest and most generic example and perhaps the best explanation, focusing on a clearly stated purpose of improving the lives of customers.

What is a practitioner of kaizen, lean, or operational excellence to do? What is the standard to follow or strive for in regards to the building block of challenge? As an aid to putting challenge into practice, it may be useful to consider what it is not, or should not be. This will allow practitioners to explore the application of challenge from within the safety of guide rails. This is especially important because “proactive challenge” is internal, controlled, and reasonable, while “reactive challenge” may be external, is uncontrollable, and may be unreasonable or unresolvable. When practicing challenge, we must avoid confusing feats of foolishness with feats of strength.

Here are some characteristics of healthy challenge:

• Challenge raises the quality of the work we do rather than just the quantity.
• Challenge is built from a set of obstacles that we can handle.
• In challenge, effort leads to progress.
• Challenge leads to satisfaction with the work we are doing.
• Challenge leads to personal growth.


How is it possible to know whether the set of obstacles belonging to a challenge set before us are surmountable? First, a teacher challenges the student to do something that the student does not yet know they can do, but that the teacher knows they can do. This is the most basic rule of challenge: be guided. Second, when we challenge ourselves we are looking for improvements to current methods, better outcomes. We are not looking for miracles. The successful result of challenge should be imaginable, even if not clearly visible. Finally, challenge must be physically possible, according to reason. This may seem obvious but in truth the higher up one goes in an organization and the more distance and time is put between leaders and the gemba, the fainter reason becomes in the minds of these leaders.

When we speak of reason, it means equally rationality, logic, and what is fair and just. The opposite is muri, overburden and unreasonableness. In contrast to challenge, overburden has the following characteristics:

• Overburden raises the output of the work without always yielding a final result.
• Overburden is built from a set of obstacles that we may or may not be able to handle.
• In overburden, effort seemingly leads only to more effort.
• Overburden leads to frustration.
• Overburden does not allow time for reflection and growth.


Muri saps the attention and energy to a degree where we are forced to cut corners, reduce attention to detail, repeat mistakes, and fail to learn. Overburden may be the quantity of work, the type of work, the way we work, or how we work as a team, such as a culture of hiding problems or assigning blame. These things are unreasonable and do not challenge people in a positive way. To grow, people need to be challenged intellectually, which requires us to expose our ignorance (i.e., lack of knowledge or ability) so that we can overcome ignorance either by personal learning or by forming a team to borrow these skills from others.

There is a Japanese expression, muri ga toureba douri hikkomu (無理が通れば道理引っ込む), which means that when we begin accepting behaviors that are unreasonable, immoral, or wrong, eventually reason, logic, and correct behaviors fade away and the unreasonable becomes the norm. A similar English phrase is, “When might is master, justice is servant.” There is a fine line between muri and challenge, one that Toyota has been accused of crossing more than once in its labor practices, supplier management, and vehicle sales plans. Even Toyota can confuse challenge with muri.

Impossible... burdensome... challenging... trivial. A task that is an unreasonable burden or even impossible for an individual may merely be a challenge for a team. Perhaps this is the magic that makes the Toyota Way work (teamwork, respect) despite the vague and divergent notion of challenge.

Challenging challenge. It is ironic that this notion of challenge has not been challenged to a greater degree. There is more ambiguity here than would seem to be acceptable for such a high-profile element of the culture at Toyota.
toyota global vision tree.png

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About The Author

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Jon Miller

Jon Miller is co-founder of Gemba Research LLC where he leads development efforts including consulting solutions, training materials, and establishing internal consulting standards. Miller was born in Japan and lived there for 18 years. In 1993 Miller was fortunate to start his career working with consultants who were students of Taiichi Ohno. Since 1998 he has led dozens of lean transformation projects in a wide range of industries. Miller has taught kaizen in 15 countries for more than 15 years. He is a frequent contributor of articles to a variety of publications and written more than 800 articles on lean manufacturing, kaizen, and the Toyota Production System on Gemba’s blog.