How to foster a culture of innovation and continuous learning - the Toyota way

Our goal with the Playing Lean expert webinar series is to invite the best practitioners so they can share their knowledge and wisdom on innovation, leadership and culture, and maybe inspire and help you in your professional and personal growth.

This is why the perfect guest to start off our webinar series was Katie Anderson, where she talked about people-centered leadership practices that can enable you to foster a culture of innovation and continuous learning.

But what are those practices and how do you create that safe environment for people to innovate? How do you create that culture where people are not afraid to fail, because it will ultimately lead to learning?

At the beginning of her book Learning to lead, leading to learn she talks about how it all started and came together for her. In 2014, weeks after she found out she and her family were moving to Japan, she was at a Lean coaching summit where she connected with John Shook, and talked about moving to Japan. It just happened to be that his mentor and very first boss at Toyota, Isao Yoshino, was in LA at the same time. Mr. Yoshino gave her his business card and invited her for a tour of Toyota, which she saw as a once in a lifetime opportunity. This was the beginning of the most impactful and important relationship in her life, personally and professionally.

Yoshino shared many stories with her, and when she moved back to the US, she asked Yoshino if he would be willing to do something more. She felt that his stories needed to be amplified, and the book turned out to be a bigger project than she anticipated. The book is based on stories of leadership and learning. It's not about the perfect leader, and it's not about the perfect organisation, as so many books are.

Isao Yoshino had many stories to share, as he was in Toyota during periods when Toyota started developing the Toyota way, the way of people management, the philosophy of leadership. The stories showed how Toyota intentionally built its culture.

One of the stories was Yoshino's experience with a startup he had at Toyota, and how it resulted in failure.

In the 1980s the company set a department to create mini companies to explore ideas. There was one in aviation, one in creating homes and one for the marine division. Yoshino spent 10 years at Toyota in the marine division. As he loved the US, he wanted to create high-end water ski boats using high-grade Lexus engines for the American market. He moved to the US and opened a factory to produce water ski boats. He encountered a lot of challenges, mainly in production, and in the end the business failed, costing Toyota 13 million dollars.

Toyota didn't fire Yoshino but asked him to conduct a reflection summary so that they don't replicate the same things when they start a new business idea inside the company.

Yoshino said that failure is only a failure if you don't learn something from it. That is the secret to Toyota, its attitude towards learning, and they do it more effectively than any other company out there.

“Reflection is the beginning, not the end of learning.” – Katie Anderson

Katie tells this story in her book because when we're pursuing innovation and new ideas, we're always going to fail, so we need to have a target and a goal. She highlights how it's about perseverance, knowing that you're going to fall down, knowing that it's a part of the learning process, but also getting back up and knowing how to pivot and adjust.

She says how intention is an important word for her, because it's about understanding what is important to us, and then aligning our actions and our behaviour in service to achieve that purpose. It's the same when we think about our services and companies - what is our company's purpose, what are we trying to achieve and what are the most important actions we need to take to move in that direction to serve that purpose. “We have to be intentional in how we show up as people and as an organisation.“

Fundamentally, the Toyota way and lean management is about developing people before developing products, respecting people's humanity, respecting people's contributions and thinking. When we start with that, then we will be able to develop the products and services that are a part of our company's purpose.

In the webinar she also shared some concepts and practices she learned from Yoshino.

A leader's role is to set the direction, provide support and develop himself/herself. If you can do those things, then you are going to create a successful people-centered learning organisation.

1)      Provide a challenge, direction or target. You need to set a challenge that keeps alignment for people. Usually, people don't know that the direction and target is. Something she learned from talking with Yoshino is ''targets need to be determined by what is needed, not by what is achievable.'' Set a direction and targets that are needed, and learn your way towards that target.

2)    Set the conditions for success and take responsibility when mistakes happen. What she also finds important for leaders is to balance the concept of challenge and nurture. We need to set a challenge, and push people into a little bit of struggle, because in that struggle is where the learning happens. But at the same time, we also need to provide support and be a safety net. Managers, leaders and coaches need to take responsibility for when mistakes happen.

Yoshino shared a story about his experience during his first 3 months at Toyota in the 60s, when he was assigned to the paint shop, where he had to pour paint every hour or two for when they were spraying cars. He made a mistake, and the shop manager came running in. Because of his mistake, hundreds of cars needed to be repainted. Instead of yelling at him, he asked Yoshino to show him what he did. Not only did the manager not get mad, but he thanked Yoshino for making the mistake because it allowed them to see what they needed to do to create a working environment that allowed him to be successful and not make mistakes. That was their responsibility as leaders.

3)     Teach the process of learning. We need to create conditions to allow learning to happen. We can’t just give out answers, but also ask questions, teaching people how they can go out and explore. You as a leader have be a guide.

4)     Be curious, ask questions, let people learn. You have to give space for failure.

5)     Focus on the principle, not the tool. She found that in organisations we are often hung up on the format. Formats can help, but when we're so hung up on formats, we're not focused on what the purpose is behind the tool. We need to be flexible so that it meets our purpose.

6)     An extra effort can make a difference. This is Yoshino's favorite motto. Yoshino shared a story when he arranged for a group of people in HR, that have a data entry job and never really traveled in Japan or outside, airline tickets so that the staff can experience the world because he wanted for people to have great experiences. Of course, such grand gestures are not necessary, but even the small things are meaningful. We have to think about the things that are not in our job title, so that we can make a meaningful difference to other people.

7)    Never stop learning and growing. When we start thinking that we have all the answers, that is the end of learning.

At the end of the webinar, Katie also shared some tips she found helpful no matter what she's focusing on.

  • Take an intention pause. You need to pause and reconnect with the purpose, and that will help you align your actions.
  • Pay attention to the quality of your questions. We often think that we're asking questions, but we're actually telling people our ideas and giving them our answers. So we need to pay attention to how we ask questions.
  • Listen openly. You have to listen not just with open ears, but also with open eyes. We need to look at people's body language, release our assumptions, and we need to be open to what other people are saying. “We need to start with the heart and start with people, and connect with them on that, and then everything else is in service of that.”

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