15 October 2009

People & Process

I recently came across this quote by Fujio Cho, Chairman of Toyota Motors:

“We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant systems. Our competitors get average results from brilliant people working around broken systems.”

Yikes! Anyone else find that somewhat disturbing? I mean, I've known for a long time that the process gurus really believe a good process is a substitute for good employees, and that process can replace talent and ingenuity. But it's not often the process people get so explicit about it.

Interestingly, Dilbert's pointy haired boss made this exact point on Sunday, saying "As you know, a good process is a substitute for good employees." That line made me laugh out loud - because it's one of those truths that isn't usually stated so explicitly. And I think Adams intended that line to be funny - surely, no boss would make a statement like that to his employees. But there we have Chairman Cho basically saying the same thing.

Now, there's probably a cultural element here. Everyone in America thinks they're above average, and to be described as "average" is an insult around here. That may not be the case in Japan.

But cultural differences aside, I'm not sure it's true that process trumps talent. In fact, I think it's the opposite. Talented people can overcome bad processes. Good processes can't overcome a lack of talent, motivation, initiative, etc. But maybe that's just because my perspective is based in an R&D environment, rather than manufacturing.

So, what do you think about the Chairman's statement? Would love to get your two cents...


Dick Field said...

Dan, I believe Mr. Cho's comment is primarily attributable to culture. It is a high virtue in Japan (and other Asian cultures) to be modest and deflect praise. It is also a virtue to cultivate order. This statement is a reflection of those values, while maintaining a certain plausibility in terms of "modern business" philosophy. The notion works best where a culture is one of adopters, rather than creators.

Mark said...

First, I very much agree with Dick's assessment of the cultural aspects of this.

Second, I think this is also very much rooted in a manufacturing context, though some have tried to generalize the Toyota Production System (aka Lean) to every other business activity. I won't go too far into that other than to say there are examples where it does apply but also examples where it probably does not.

I think there is something easily misinterpreted about the quote (so much so that I would almost say that Fujio-san is misleading us regarding his true meaning). That is the concept of "average" people and "brilliant" systems. The way the systems become "brilliant" is by a constant bombardment of great ideas conceived and implemented by those "average" people. If I'm on the assembly line attaching doors to frames, and I have 12 seconds to do the job, but every now and then a defect causes me to take 30 seconds to do the job and I come up with a way to prevent the defect from happening, then I (an average worker) just made the system more brilliant. On the other hand, if I instead chose to be a "brilliant" worker who only figured out my own little work-arounds to cope with the incoming defect (i.e. I can do the job better than anyone else) then has anything really been improved? In both instances, a case could be made that I did "good work", but only in the former did I really make a difference.

So the misinterpretation that I am suggesting here is the assumption that the "System" or "Process" is something that is imposed from above onto the worker bees who are expected to keep their heads down and follow orders. Sadly, that is too common in traditional American mass-production - but it is distinctly not the case in Toyota/Lean. By touting the success of his brilliant system, Fujio Cho is really saying how much he values the contributions of every employee who has made the system what it is today. Also implied, is that he expects each of those employees to work on making the system even better tomorrow.

Dilbert's pointy-haired boss apparently read the back cover of a few Lean books, maybe walked down a hallway outside a hotel conference room where somebody was touting TPS, and walked away with an all-too-common but spot-on-funny bastardization of what it is all about.

Mark said...

One quick follow-up: tied in with this difference in understanding is the question of whether a capital-P Process is something that is static and inflexible, or constantly being tested, questioned, and upgraded to a higher standard. At Toyota it's the latter.

It really is FISTy... really, it is... ;) (look into the Lean concept of SMED - single minute exchange of die, and tell me that it isn't all about being Fast, Inexpensive, Simple, and Tiny)

Mark said...

BTW, I found your same quote here:


I think the presentation puts it into context nicely. Also, check out the quotes from Taiichi Ohno earlier in the presentation.

The Dan Ward said...

Excellent insight and analysis as always, Marko! And I think you're right about Toyota's Lean being FISTy.

I also think you really hit on something when you talked about misinterpretation. That is, there's the concept Fujio-san intended to convey, which was likely easily understood in his native country. And then there's what American audiences are likely to hear and (mis)understand.

When viewed through our American cultural lens, he seems to be saying "I don't have good employees, but that's OK, because I have good processes." Or perhaps "You don't need to have good workers if you just have a few smart people telling them what to do." Dilbert's pointy haired boss is therefore expressing a very common (mis)perception of Toyota's process mindset.

I don't think that's the Chairman's intention. I agree that he's looking at "the system" as something that's composed of all the people, and which is greater than the sum of its parts. So, to translate into American, he's probably talking about teamwork, collaboration & communication. But to us individualistic US Americans, the actual quote has a flavor of hive-mind and Borg.

My point in bringing it up is not so much that he's wrong, but that if we're not careful, we're going to misunderstand and misapply his wisdom.

I've been in meetings where people talk about the workforce as "elementary school kids" who need to be dictated to, via tightly controlled processes that they cannot alter. And Fujio-san's words are used to justify this position. Maybe if they'd read more than the book jacket they'd understand better, right?