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July 2010

The last week of May, I was with Ritsuo Shingo at the Shingo Prize conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. Ritsuo was the former President of Toyota Motors in China, son of Dr. Shigeo Shingo. Ritsuo said something truly amazing: “Last November, I was given a new assignment to head the Toyota Research Center in China. I asked Mr. Toyoda, president of Toyota, what I was going to do. Mr. Toyoda told me to do whatever I wanted to do.” Imagine how powerful this statement is? It shows complete trust in Ritsuo’s ability to serve the best interest of Toyota.

Norman Bodek
PCS Press
Imagine your boss telling you to do whatever you want to do. In all of my long years in business, I never heard a story like this before. A senior person always tells a subordinate what to do, maybe not how, but always what. Just imagine that! Do you have the trust from your boss to the same extent as Ritsuo has from his boss? If not, why not? And how can you get that kind of trust?

Ritsuo also said that he was told to send Mr. Toyoda a written report every 10 days. In the last few months, Ritsuo has been visiting over 100 dealerships in China asking the dealers to tell him their problems, their complaints and their concerns about Toyota’s products and services. Ritsuo records the complaints and sends a summary report of what he discovered to Mr. Toyota every 10 days. This process bi-passes all of the levels of management. This gives Mr. Toyoda a direct link to his customers – the dealers.

If Toyota had someone like Mr. Shingo going to every dealership in America listening to problems and complaints, I am sure Toyota would not have had to recall eight to ten million automobiles. It is why, those of us in the Lean community, are taught to go to the Gemba (the factory floor), to get the real facts. The Gemba is where the product is made, where the problems first occur and where we can add real value for our customers.

In large corporations, there is a great gap between the CEO and the customer. In fact, most CEOs hardly ever meet their customer, listen to their complaints, or even know the problems confronting their first level employee.

Most large companies set up barriers between their CEO and the customer. Why should the CEO want to listen to you? Maybe because you are the customer!

Try an experiment and see if you can call the CEO of any of the top 100 companies in America. First you will be met with an automated answering robot, quite frustrating: “We might record this conversation for quality purposes.” Whose quality, surely not mine? Then you have to go through maybe a dozen robotic iterations to get to a human being. Then if you are lucky enough to talk to some live person, if you do have a complaint, the first reaction is to normally defend the actions of the company, not to get to the source of the problem.

These companies are crazy. They don’t want complaints. Remember what happened to the soldier that told Caesar they lost the battle. “His head was cut off,” so nobody wants to tell their boss bad news. It is crazy for a complaint is like a jewel. It is an opportunity to serve your customer, to get information to create new products and services. Yes, to look closely at new opportunities. Innovation comes from problems. The quicker the problems are identified at their source and forwarded upwards the more successful the company.

Of course, Toyota and every other automobile manufacturer receive tens of thousands of complaints, many of which have lead to fatalities. Over 40,000 automobiles deaths a year in America alone. Intoxicated drivers might have caused most of these accidental deaths but many surely have come from manufacturing problems. Who decides what accident information should go up the ladder?

The old scenario: The dealer is informed of a bad problem with an automobile and the first reaction is to avoid liability and call it the driver’s error. Secondly, they might inform the district manager, who might inform the area manager, who might inform the state manager, who might inform the person in charge of complaints in America, who might send a note to Japan, which might reach some desk in Nagoya but rarely will that complaint hit the desk of the CEO - every level feels they must protect the next level up.

But, now Ritsuo has the “ear” of the president. Try to imagine how an organization can send important information to the top without the layers of protection! Is it possible?

I used to fly a lot on United Airlines. On one flight from Hawaii the eggs were really bad. I told the flight attendant and asked, “How can you serve such bad eggs?” She told me that I should write to the CEO of United for she felt that she had no way to reach upper management. There was not a link from the flight attendant to the CEO. And the United CEO probably complains about the price of oil as the reason for all of their losses while South West Airlines listens to customers and continues to make money.

The CEO has the real power to make significant change. I would guess that the brake problem at Toyota never reached the ears of Mr. Toyoda until it hit the media – the newspapers. Each layer thought that they could solve the problem without bothering the CEO.

How do you reach the CEO? The CEO feels, to manage his/her large organization, they have to isolate themselves from the customer. I remember years back when a vice-president in Connecticut jokingly told me to that his CEO once told him, “We would have such a great bank if we didn’t have to cater to those customers of ours.”

The CEO worries about getting too many telephone calls from their customers. I would think the most important job of a leader is to be in touch with their customers. I believe if Toyota had that open link from their customers to the top of the organization their problem would have been minimal.

Now how do you reach the level of expertise, like Ritsuo did, to attain the absolute trust from your superior to do whatever you think is best for your company? I believe you have to be the real expert in whatever you do. You have to be the best. Are you?

I found an amazing new process in Japan that teaches you how to become the real expert on your job. I will get into the details of this new process next month.

Please send you comments on this article to


no_photo.gifNorman Bodek started Productivity Inc., Productivity Press, and also the Shingo Prize. In the early 1980’s he met Dr. Shingo, Mr. Ohno, and other great manufacturing geniuses, and published their books in English. He brought to the West Lean, JIT, Kanban, 5S, SMED, TPM, QFD, Hoshin, CEDAC, the Kaizen Blitz, and other powerful improvement tools and techniques.

Norman Bodek, is the author of How to Do Kaizen and recently completed teaching a course on the Best of Japanese Management Practices at Portland State University. Norman is the President of PCS Press, a consultant, and has written over 60 articles on Lean.

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