One Small Voice

I have been struggling lately with the value of blogging–not everyone, just me.  There is so much out there already that I have justified my reluctance with many good reasons (or excuses maybe). See what you think of these:

1) How can people wade through the thousands of blogs on topics related to the Toyota Production System (TPS) to find my one small voice?

2) What do I have to say that is unique in the world of continuous improvement?

3) I am not a promoter of me, so I don’t know how people would even know that what I share comes from any unique experience?

4) As the professional me developed, my mentors encouraged humility, self-reflection, responsibility to play a position for the organization vs. a personal role for career developmentturtle

…and the list goes on.  These concepts connected with me and now I see blogging as an activity that goes against my grain.  Right?

As I consider my so-called reasons they do look more like excuses–if I consider the intent of blogging.  There are probably as many reasons for blogging as there are bloggers. But, I think I have finally found the reason that might get me to post to my blog on a more regular basis (as my boss has so kindly requested).

First, I have been lucky to learn the Toyota Production System from mentors who worked with Mr. Ohno, the official developer of TPS.  As I have learned-by-doing from them I see that TPS is unique.  These mentors took their time, energy and a bit of their own sanity to pass some level of competency to me.  It is my responsibility to do the same.  Often when I feel that my sanity is a bit touch-and-go on a project, I am reminded of my duty and passion to pay-it-forward.

Second, I learned an important lesson from one of my early mentors while I was working at the Toyota Supplier Support System (TSSC) that sticks with me today.  After leading a workshop with top executives, I was visibly disappointed.  I didn’t like my boss to see me like that because I felt he deserved managers who could stand up to the challenges of helping others see the light (not much humility there).  Nonetheless there I was with my private pain when he appeared.  He often stopped by for casual conversation at the end of the day, but I think this time was telepathic.

We reflected about the workshop.  It took approximately 95 seconds for him to ask if I felt that we had been successful.  I looked at him as if he had 3 heads and told him NO.  His next question was why.  Well, I thought, he is a smart person so what is he trying to get me to discover.

I searched my mind-vault and came up with the first thing I saw; a group of leaders who weren’t convinced that TPS would work for them.   After sharing this with my boss, he shook his head politely and asked the next question; “How many people out of 25 did you expect to be convinced through this experience?”  His question stumped me but I finally came out with a rough guess of 10.  He looked surprised so I asked him the same question and his answer was 1.  I couldn’t believe it. Why would we put so much time and energy into a workshop if we only expected 1 conversion?  He explained that people who are “convinced” in a workshop are either miraculously in the right place at the right time or their epiphany won’t stand up beyond the enthusiasm of the training experience.

I still didn’t get it. Why all the effort? He patiently explained that if we really do convince 1 top leader, that means that all the people in the company will benefit.  He asked if that was enough benefit for me and I responded, “of course”. He looked at me with yet another challenge in his eyes and shared that the 1 audience member was not even the whole, real reason we invested our energy.  What in the world could it be? “You” he said, “the development of you and our team”.

Okay, humility aside, I have had unique mentors and experiences.  I continue to have them now.  So, I have decided to blog on, with my one, small voice.  I will hope each time to reach at least one person who is hungry to learn what I have to share.

Lesa Nichols
June 19, 2013


It takes a lot to see

091211_cellphoneI remember when I couldn’t see much either,
and sometimes it’s still hard for me.
I remember the first time we tried to see together.
Now that was really hard.

You, hiding behind your cell phone
to avoid interacting with me.
We can laugh about it now,
but I wasn’t smiling then.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again –
assumptions are seriously dangerous.
I assumed you thought you were too busy
to be wasting time looking around the shop floor.

I know better now.
You work hard at what you do and it’s not easy
once you have reached the top
to let people see what you don’t know.
So it was easier to hide – behind the phone, in your office…

But now you have a different view;
More open to explore the operations
with respectful questions and genuine interest.

We walk together now, stopping to see,
what’s needed for people to excel at what they do.
I see you are proud of the people here
making products that are filled with value.

And all the unseen improvements
that have made the customers happy and coming back for more.
No need to hide now, you can put your cell phone in your pocket
and lean in to get a better look at how the work is done.

Focused, intent, curious…
we almost bump heads.
We see a lot more – and better too
now that we are looking and listening, together
for the barriers in the way of adding value
so we can break through them, one by one.

Who knew “seeing” could be so much fun?

During my many years in Toyota’s ‘TPS’ world, I never heard the term Gemba.  What I did hear was “Go and See” and “Genchi Genbutsu”.  So what is the difference and does it matter?

Genchi Genbutsu

This is Toyota’s term for what the rest of the world knows as Gemba.

First, the pronunciation:

*Gen (as in ‘again’)


*Gen (same as before)
*but (as in ‘boot’, not ‘butt’)
*su (as in ‘sue’)

Second, what does it mean?  In English, it has been diluted to “Go and See”.  But the key question is go to see what?  We are going to see the reality that is happening- the “genjitsu”.  The words are limiting so don’t get caught up in them – for example, the original Japanese means “the real spot, the real thing” and doesn’t in any way say to “go” do anything.  It is implied. 

Perhaps a better explanation is go… and observe.  (It’s hard to tell, I was once told that there are more than 40 words for “look” in Japanese.)   The words compel me to try to understand how to deeply observe the real work being done in the real worksite.  More importantly perhaps is to consider, when I am there, what am I trying to find?

I am certainly not a Japanese language specialist but my interpretation of this concept is Go with Intention to where the real work is done and observe deeply what is actually happening.

Third, the most important thing to me is to show respect to the people doing the actual work and not fall into the trap of being a tourist looking around generally without some idea of what I expect to see. 

So, how do you do this?  This is the million dollar question Hundreds of books have been written on this topic. Common advice is to pick a theme: 5S, inventory management, cells and flow, value streams, employee involvement, etc.  All of this is interesting but I would offer that it is more important to know what you want to accomplish.  Of course, this varies depending on your role in the organization.

If you happen to be a member of top management with considerable decision making authority, I would ask you where is YOUR biggest source of pain?  Is there a way that you can show it to me in the worksite?  Let’s go there, where the work is done, with a sense of curiosity and ask the people doing the work, what is THEIR pain?  Listen and observe carefully, ask respectful, thoughtful questions and take some notes of the key things that make an impression.  Then back off to examine the connections between your pain and your employees’ pain.  When we have some ideas about that, try to figure out what you can do to help them get their jobs done with less pain.  Good for the people, good for you and most importantly, good for the customer. 

There are various techniques to asking good questions and to grasp what is happening in the worksite without being tourists.  At the management level, we have a responsibility to break through barriers so the organization can move at the speed you expect.

So, before you hit the worksite, ask yourself – “what do I need to accomplish with this walk?  How will I know if it is successful?” And then, you’ll know : )

Best Regards,
(Comments welcome, don’t be shy)

This week I was working at a client site with a newly formed team of future coaches. This was the second meeting in a series of several aimed at developing coaching skills and TPS know-how.

During a break in the action on our first day, I sat quietly with a member of the team named Kevin, enjoying a companionable silence. I was taking a few moments to clear my head so I could direct our “learn by doing” efforts without allowing head-based learning to idle our hands.

When Kevin spoke, I wasn’t surprised to hear his voice but rather, his words were startling. His question was simple – what did I preferred to be called; a teacher, trainer or maybe something else. I responded that I saw myself as more of a coach. I didn’t have to explain much more before I noticed a light of recognition in his eyes. He quickly shared that my answer made a lot of sense to him. He pointed out that I was working with them at the worksite so that they could become coaches too.

He then asked if I had a preference for working with people new to TPS or fairly seasoned. I replied that the “seasoned learners” were a bit easier because they already had pretty strong ideas about TPS and would challenge me sooner. I explained that in my experience this speeds up the learning process. He nodded and at that moment the other team members started gathering around us. The moment was lost.

Later, when I had taken some time to think about my response, I was disappointed because I hadn’t considered why he might have asked that second question. I guessed that I might have accidentally taken him from being highly motivated to questioning why he had been selected to become a coach– given that he was new to TPS.

The next day I revisited the conversation with him and concluded that while he might be trying to let me off the hook I had probably put the wrong type of thoughts (self-questioning) in his head. He proved throughout the day though that he was putting it behind him as he asked one good question after the other. As we finished up this leg of the coaching session I realized that his behavior demonstrated exactly what we (the company and I) aimed for in the selection process for the coaches:

  • Willingness to keep an open mind so that a 360 degree learning process can continue
  • Straight forward communication to resolve potential barriers in newly forming relationships
  • Persistence to keep moving even if you periodically question your own effectiveness as a new coach
  • Asking questions that illuminate a bright path for speedy self-development
  • Posing those same questions in an appropriate setting for good dialogue
  • Forgiveness of mistakes without caving in to lower expectations

Of course the list is much longer but, with these basic characteristics, coaching skills can be developed. I hope I modeled other important characteristics to Kevin; like willingness to admit when you are wrong or just not living up to your own expectations.


I can remember many times when I got “stuck” with my kaizen.

One particular situation stays with me even though it was over 15 years ago.

I was working with a company to help them make ergonomic improvements for each process in a product line. It was our intention to do this first and then connect all the processes into a U-shape cell – on to takt time, etc. But first, the ergonomic kaizen. I worked with the team members on their ideas and mine. They had an endless list of great ideas – creative, unique and on-target to the aim of our goals. The implementation phase was quick and happy.

The rest of the list made me nervous – as our tasks would not be related to ergonomic improvements or continuous flow. We needed to maximize the efficiency of part flow to some processes while creating an isolated island for the team members. Since the team members in this line rotated to each process, the tension among the team grew rapidly. As we tried to assess which process layout style was best for the team members and continuous flow, well, let me just say, it wasn’t just the welder giving off sparks.

Finally, a dim light bulb flickered in my head reminding me that we would get nowhere fast by just talking and simulating with sticky notes. However, if we were to try out the ideas (with an open mind of course), and see them as a team, we could evaluate facts and ideas very quickly. I rallied the group for a pep talk about kaizen spirit and a slogan came to my mind – “Don’t think it out. Try it out!” As a result the team was energized to try anything to get unstuck.

Perhaps you can imagine what happened next. As soon as we united to actually DO and TRY experiments, we were able to implement very good kaizens quickly. The teamwork they had from the ergonomic kaizen was back and even stronger. During my next visit to the plant, I arrived to grinning faces as the team showed me their first TRY at a continuous flow cell.

Have you had any experiences being stuck and how you broke the deadlock that the rest of us could learn from? Please share.

– Lesa

To be Successful…

A long while ago, when starting my industrial career, I was required to take Forklift Operation and Safety.  For those who know me well, the idea of me actually driving a forklift is cause for fright.  To date, I have avoided this task for the safety of everyone working around me.  However, the training was truly interesting for me and boring for the rest of the class (if sleeping heads is any indication).

I watched the film clips, listened intently to the stats and observed my fellow trainees to see if they were awake and as scared as I was.  Unfortunately, they slept on and they were the ones who were destined to drive these monsters.  Now I was afraid and annoyed that the trainer didn’t wake everyone up.  At the end of class, they climbed out of their desks, signed their names and went back to work.  In a couple of weeks they would be taking a “practical course” to demonstrate their driving skill.  I would not.  I just had to stay out of the way on the construction site and later manage forklift drivers.

I hold this memory in my head as a terrible example of training.  I think most of it is obvious from my story but there are some things I would like to get your comments on.  These are opinions that I have formed from many years designing and delivering training:

  1. Clarifying expectations -If people don’t know why they are attending the training and how it fits to their job expectations, they might as well have stayed home.  They are simply confused the whole time.  I have had to postpone training sessions because the participants had no idea why they were there and what came after the training.  Of course, we worked through it with management and the trainees but it didn’t make for a good training environment.
  2. The Results -What is expected by the management team or mentor for the group.  Is there anyone in the management team that “owns” the results of the training?
  3. The Follow-Up – Coaching to support the newly trained as they try and struggle to achieve implementation in their own jobs.  For some, it will be natural but others will struggle and need direct support to be confident enough to try.  Does anyone know who the support person is and are they qualified to help?

What Should We Do? Cancel the Training?  Nooooooo, but what are some things you have tried?   Are you willing to share your stories?  I will share some more of what I have done next week.  Some worked, others were not so great.  We can learn from both.

– Lesa

Close  your eyes and get an image of a time when you have been really mad about inefficiencies with public money.

Mine is during highway construction when I see people just “standing around” while a smaller group does the actual work.  Every now and then, I get to the point of thinking “those are my tax dollars, they are wasting my money”.  Actually though, I don’t know who is doing what and how many people they really need to get the job done.

It’s the same everywhere.  Usually direct and indirect labor is the biggest cost an organization has but when I ask the question – “How many people do you need?” – to the people running things, I get a blank stare.  I am not blaming them, it is a tough question which I have yet to receive an answer.

Part of the struggle is the nature of customer demand for goods and services-it fluctuates so much that your operations have to fluctuate as well.  How can anyone figure labor needs with all those ups-and-downs of customer demand, plus unpredictable suppliers, employees who may or may not show up to work….the list of variables goes on and on. You could even say IT’S CHAOS!!

If we use the concept of staffing up for maximum customer orders, this vicious cycle begins: Hire, Train, Work and Lay Off. Before you know it, the very frustrating, costly cycle cranks up again and again. Do you have any ideas for a more accurate, humane way to handle the situation?  Well, as you may have guessed, I have an idea.

And here it is: Run the business to produce products and services at the same pace that the customer wants them.  This pace is called takt time–a number calculated using the equation below.  It is also a critical number in knowing how many people we really need to do the work:

You can see from this equation that the number of people required can change based on a couple variables.  Let me know what you come up with.  You may have more questions than answers but that is very normal.  This is a very dynamic concept that is a lot easier communicated on a white board.

– Lesa