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Leadership Lessons From Toyota City

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

Think back to being in school. What sound did you hear at the beginning or end of the day? I bet it was an alarm like the one pictured above. What does this have to do with Toyota City? Let me explain.

The Gearhead View of the World

"Gearhead" was the nickname given to the handful of engineers in my business school class. We provided a fun counterpoint to all the business and finance types at Wharton, and we frequently came at topics and concepts from a completely different angle.

Through much of my early career I worked in Quality Operations; the first 10 years at a steel plant supplying all of the major automotive manufacturers. So I was beyond excited to discover that we would be visiting Toyota City during our international trip! I have reflected back on that visit time and again, and the leadership lessons on display transcend industry, geography, and time.

Communication is Critical

Every book on leadership includes a chapter on communication: why it matters, how to do it, and a few anecdotes about the results of poor communication.

Our hosts at Toyota showed us the high honor of a Q&A with a senior Toyota executive. He may have been their chief marketing officer, or perhaps sales. I recall him as being incredibly gracious and thoughtful as he fielded our questions, all communicated back and forth through an interpreter.

You might be thinking "Surely such a senior person at a global corporation spoke English?" And a few of us were as well. In fact, our guide explained that the executive's English was really quite good.

The use of an interpreter was a cultural signal of high respect. Communication was so critical to him that he used the interpreter to ensure all nuance was understood. A great lesson in cross-cultural business and the universal importance of clear communication.


After our discussion with the executive we were off for the plant tour. I was excited beyond words to see the famous Toyota Production System live and in person! Yes, I really am that big a geek.

We were led to a catwalk high above the shop floor and allowed to watch operations for about 30 minutes. Just a few minutes into things we witnessed the infamous "Andon Cord" pull.

Operators at Toyota were empowered to pull this cord and immediately stop the production line any time they saw an error or issue. What happens next though may surprise you.

Once the Andon Cord is pulled a tone sounds and a light turns on at the point of the problem (Andon is Japanese for lantern.) All Operators step back from the line and every Supervisor around runs to the problem area. Not walks, RUNS. They attack the issue and fix it as quickly as possible to get the line back up and running.

One key Operations metric is downtime; from a Lean perspective we view this as waste, and waste costs money. The earlier a problem is found the less it costs to correct. So it is critical that Operators are not only encouraged to identify issues, but also that they are NOT penalized for doing so.

Supervisors have the responsibility to identify and fix the problem. And when the Operators and Supervisors have a shared metric teamwork is essential to minimize downtime.

The Alarm Bell

You are likely still wondering about the alarm bell and what that has to do with leadership. While standing on the catwalk every few minutes we heard a variety of tunes played over the intercom. Each was distinct, and all were pleasant and melodic.

Our guide dutifully explained what each tone signaled. We heard the first one when the Andon Cord was pulled - loud and energetic for sure, but not what we might hear in the U.S.

A typical Kanban Card

The second was a signal that the Kanban cards were about to be collected. The cards were placed in holders on beams along the center aisle of the factory; an incredibly talented worker rode down the aisle on a bicycle snagging the cards out of the holders as he passed by. Fun job!

The most delightful tune of all was for break time! And this is what got me thinking about the bells we use in school, in shops, or in manufacturing plants in the U.S.

Think about the alarm bell pictured above. What emotions does it evoke? Being startled by an alarm certainly creates a stress response - but is this necessary? Why can't we associate a pleasant, uplifting, inspiring tune with an associated action?

How different would our schools and workplaces be if we followed the Toyota example? Instead of triggering a stress response we could create a release of feel good hormones.

Replace "Oh crap! Something's broken!" with "Help is on the way!"

"Darn it, I ran out of parts again!" becomes "Perfect timing! I'm getting low on parts!"

"That startled me!" turns into "Lunch time!"

Your Leadership Moment

I leave you with these thoughts:

  • What are you willing to do to communicate clear expectations and improve understanding with your team?

  • Does your team see you as a teammate ready to jump in and help solve problems?

  • Have you created a positive environment where people can be their best?

Reimagine your workplace where everyone understands the mission and their role to support it. People are comfortable alerting you to issues early on when they are easiest - and cheapest - to fix. The environment supports optimism and positive actions even when the work itself is difficult.

This is your Leadership Moment.

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