Leading teams with empathy – the Toyota way

Toyota is a brand that embodies production precision driven by meticulous management. Synonymous with excellence, international reputation is undoubtedly the result of a workforce that is engaged, committed and valued. But how does Toyota achieve this? The answer is through strong and transparent leadership that values all stakeholders at every level of the business.

The Leadership Network has been investigating how Toyota Material Handling nurtures a thriving workforce committed to the culture of excellence. This final article explores in more detail the key concept of Hoshin Kanri, a philosophy which places strong leadership at the heart of a business, inspiring the workforce from senior management to the shop floor. Examining the different stages of Toyota's sustainable lean 'iceberg' reveals what keeps people motivated and engaged, enabling the business to thrive and grow.

Stefano Cortiglioni is Head of Transformation at Toyota's Lean Academy in Bologna, Italy. He illustrates the unique model by invoking an image of an iceberg in the sea with visible attributes - tools, technology, technique and processes – above the waterline, and strategy and alignment, leadership, behaviour and engagement – sitting invisibly below the water.

Explaining that the larger invisible underwater mass supports the visible output, Cortiglioni describes how Toyota Material Handling has used the model to build an environment for sustainable lean thinking by placing true value on its people, instilling their work with deep meaning and inspiring them to stay true to the Toyota ethos.

Everything begins with strong leadership

Leading by example is key to Hoshin Kanri. "Leaders should always be aware that their colleagues are watching what they do and not only what they say," explains Cortiglioni. "A manager should be like a team coach, offering support and building relationships that encourage transparency and openness." For example, people are encouraged to come forward when problems arise, secure in the knowledge that the issue will be treated as a company problem, without individual blame.

At Toyota, strong and supportive leadership inspires engagement through Mendomi - a Japanese term that means taking care of workers like they are family. Toyota leaders are always mindful of external factors, like family matters, that may impact an employee's performance and support them with openness and empathy.

An environment of mutual trust benefits both the leaders and employees and nurtures positive leadership behaviour for teams to follow. "You have to put a lot of trust in your teams as you can't control and manage everything alone," says Cortiglioni. "My team motivates me. Enjoying success together is the biggest motivation."

Cortiglioni benefits from visiting the plants to see what is going on with his own eyes, doing gemba walks, rather than managing from afar by examining KPIs. "KPI's do not reflect the real world," he says. He uses the example of a logistics manager who was anxious about a lack of space, so he visited the factory and found an area where components were overstocked and dusty and reassigned the area to solve the problem. He created a link between the target and the real world and built trust with the workers by being present and really knowing their work environment.

It was the perfect example of always being mindful of the line of sight, with Cortiglioni regularly reminding his teams of their line of sight to the business goals with his visits. Line of sight at Toyota is a testament for the scope of the employee's ability and desire to see, understand, and care beyond the self.

Every Kaizen idea is bright – The importance of recognition

Strong leadership instils an improvement mindset and Toyota has developed a set of tools to embed ownership and responsibility in individuals. Workers record all daily targets and deviations to help them analyse weak points and deal with problems efficiently. This sense of control and partnership benefits the business and individuals equally.

To fully support the continuous improvement mindset and engineer engagement, Toyota offers tangible and visible appreciation for every Kaizen (improvement) idea through recognition that is more than financial, for example a visit to another plant or an awards ceremony. Employees are encouraged to share ideas with their leader, who discusses it at a weekly meeting. Each idea is evaluated and transparent feedback is offered about whether the idea will be taken further or why it's not possible.

Cortiglioni recalls being taken out for dinner with a Managing Director to celebrate a good idea. The Director was genuinely interested and this visible appreciation made him feel valued.

"Key to sustaining a lean culture is commitment and this must come from the top," says Cortiglioni. For example, management are always present at work parties or celebrations. If they disappear because they have more important things to do, it sets a bad example and makes people feel they don't care. When Toyota's President attends a presentation or competition for Kaizen ideas, he is sending a positive message that makes people feel important.

"I have always enjoyed sharing and discussing targets with my team," says Cortiglioni. "We discuss and validate everyone's opinions, listening and trying to deeply understand what each employee is saying."

Tools, technology, technique and processes – The tip of the iceberg

Once strong and supportive leadership is established, solutions to problems can be found by offering workers useful tools, for example generating a visible breakdown of every problem, from equipment shortages to production problems. Every problem is divided into relevant functions so that the right person with the appropriate skills can be assigned to find a solution, again creating a sense of ownership without blame. Data is also critical at Toyota, offering tangible analysis and results. It helps to identify key constraints and to visualise a clear path forward.

Hoshin Kanri demands clear direction in deploying mid to long- term targets, involving different teams throughout all levels of the business. A useful tool is the breakdown of single targets into smaller parts by managers to help teams and individuals achieve final KPIs.

The future holds seismic changes for the industry and as Toyota sets out on the journey towards automation, strong leadership becomes increasingly critical for supporting lean methodology for organising, developing and sustaining a productive work environment. The ethos of reducing waste and optimising productivity was born at Toyota but has been adopted by businesses worldwide whose leaders aspire to take care of their workforce in an ever-changing and challenging world. The key learning from Toyota for other companies is its emphasis on the below the waterline, focusing on leadership, behaviours and engagement, which allowed Toyota to build strong foundations that achieve sustainable results.

In cooperation with The Leadership Network.

Read our other articles in this series:

When the Sensei goes away

Scaling lean across the business

Lean transformation