Depths of ‘Transformation’

butterflyI’ve been meaning to write this post for 2 years! It feels good to finally ‘get it out of my head’ and onto the page.

It’s about that lovely ‘Transformation’ word.

Before I go on, I’ll repeat a definition from an earlier post:

Transformation: In an organisational context, a process of profound and radical change that orients an organisation in a new direction and takes it to an entirely different level of effectiveness….transformation implies a basic change of character and little or no resemblance with the past configuration or structure.” (

To repeat the key phrase: An entirely different level of effectiveness! …and, just in case you missed it, the word is effectiveness, not efficiency.

I’m going to outline 3 levels of (supposed) transformation and I’ll do this by borrowing the bones of an idea from Mike Rother’s excellent ‘Toyota Kata’ book and extend it with a large dose of my own ‘poetic license’.

Level 1 Transformation: ‘On the surface’

iceburgSo, picture the scene: It’s the late 1970s. Your organisation desperately wants to improve and, on looking around for someone achieving brilliant results, you spot the awesome Toyota (or such like1).

You go on a Toyota factory visit. You are amazed at what you see and excitedly ask them how they do it.

You easily observe (‘on the surface’) lots of obvious methods and tools…and so you grab evidence of how these are carried out – e.g. some template forms, and the instructions that go with them. You also take lots of pictures of their (visual management) walls to show all this working in situ.

You run back home, hand out the methods and tools and mandate that, from now on, this is what we are doing.

toolboxYou helpfully provide training and (so called) ‘coaching’…and you put in place ‘governance’ to ensure it’s working. You roll it all up together and you give it a funky title…like your Quality Toolbox. Nice.

So what happens?

Well, yep, those tools and methods sure are ‘shiny new’ and easily applied. There’s an initial buzz, probably because of senior management focus…and pressure to prove the comedy ‘Return on Investment’ (ROI) calculation that had to be set out in the short-term thinking ‘will you pay for our factory trip?’ business case.

But the initial effects fall away. Anything achieved was a one-off, or of limited and low level benefit. The changes aren’t sustained – with a slide back to the old state. People start to misuse the tools and methods, and do much damage rather than good. There is a brief and ugly fight with the ‘methods and tools’ compliance police but disillusionment sets in and the early good work becomes discredited and abandoned (just like the last silver bullet…and the one before that…)

Timely reminder: “A fool with a tool is still a fool” (Grady Booch)

Note: This ‘on the surface’ transformation attempt has been likened to organisations going over to Japan in the late 1970s and early 1980s and coming home to fanatically ‘do Total Quality Management’ (TQM)…and then quietly dropping it a few years later. Sure, some organisations sustained it but most didn’t.

Level 2 Transformation: ‘Under the skin’

skinSo it’s now the 1990s. The methods and tools that came out of the initial Toyota factory visit weren’t sustained but the pressure is still on (and mounting) to transform your organisation…and your management can’t help noticing that Toyota are still doing amazing!

“Perhaps we didn’t look hard enough or close enough or long enough…perhaps we should go back and have a look ‘under the skin’.”

…and so you go for another factory visit (once you’ve been given permission following another well written story business case 🙂 ).

This time you take real care – studying ‘at the gemba’ for weeks, asking questions, watching activities, understanding the nature of changes being made to the system before you.

“Eureka! There’s something underneath those methods and tools! We can see that there’s an underlying logic that we missed last time round…oooh, we could codify them into a set of principles!

And here’s basically what you arrive at:

0. Everything should belong to, or support, a value stream (a horizontal flow from customer need, through to its satisfaction)

…and for each value stream we should:

1. Specify value, where this is through the eyes of the customer; then

2. Identify all the actions performed within the value stream, and expose and remove the obvious waste; then

3. Create flow by understanding and removing the barriers; then

4. Establish pull by producing only what is needed, when requested; and finally

5. The ‘golden nugget’: we should continually strive for perfection because this is a never-ending journey

Wow, that was profound – your factory tour team now need to give it a name!

And so, after a fun focus group, a young member of your team called John2 shouts out “It needs less of everything to create a given amount of value, so let’s call it ‘Lean’.”

Whoop, whoop, he’s only gone and cracked it!

You run back home to tell everyone about the wonders of ‘Lean’. You hand out books, provide training courses, coaching and mentoring and you slot all those wonderful tools and methods nicely into their place…neat…this is going to be great!

So what happens?

Well, everyone absolutely LOVES the principles. They make sooo much sense. They particularly liked playing with Lego in the training sessions to demo flow, pull, kanban and ‘stop the line’ thinking.

But after a while (and some short-term gains) you realise that there’s a huge tension building. No one can make those darn principles work because they continually clash with existing management practises.

Your senior management employ a gaggle of so-called Lean coaches to try to change the people at the bottom whilst they carry on at the top as before!

Your ‘Lean Office’ has become an island of coaches doing great work with the people but unable to turn the tide. Coaching conversations end with responses like:

“Yes, I can see that would be the right thing to do for the value stream…but that’s not what my objectives, performance rating and bonus is based on…or what my manager above me would support…so I’ll stick to soul-destroying fighting within my silo. Sorry about that 😦

This culminates in huge frustration; a revolving door of broken coaches; and many a good employee finding a better organisation to work for. If you ran an employee survey at this point, the results would make for ugly reading – you’ve created a complete divide between worker reality and management ‘cloud cuckoo land’.

Oh, and that lean word? Well it became capitalised! LEAN…as if it were a thing. You’ve all forgotten that it was just a label thought up by John in a focus group merely to describe what the factory visit team saw.

Pause for reflection: Taiichi Ohno is considered to be the father of the Toyota Production System (TPS) but he didn’t want it to be written down3 (codified) because he wanted it to remain dynamic.

And as for that name:“Ohno did not call his innovation ‘lean’ – he didn’t want to call it anything. He could, perhaps foresee the folly of a label.” (John Seddon)

Caution: …and if you did this ‘under the skin’ (supposed) transformation within a service organisation, you may find (if you properly stood back to look at it!) that you’d totally f@ck$d it up!

Credit: The ‘Level 2’ principles jotted down above are the core of the 1996 book ‘Lean Thinking’ by Womack and Jones….which they wrote following their research in Japan. They explicitly set out 5 principles, with a foundational one implied (hence why I’ve labelled it as ‘principle nought’).

Level 3 Transformation: ‘In the DNA’

dna…and so to the 2000s. The pressure to change your organisation is relentless – the corporate world is ‘suffering’ from seemingly constant technological disruption…but Toyota continues to be somehow different.

You pluck up the courage and ask for a sabbatical for 6 months – you want to find the meaning of life…well, perhaps not that deep…but you sure as hell want to know what Toyota have got that you don’t…and to work this out, you are going to have to go in deep – to their DNA.

Toyota are happy to see you again. But, rather than repeating what you did on the last two trips, you come straight out with it:

“Okay, you’ve shown me your tools and methods…you’ve let me uncover your principles…and I know that these aren’t the answer! What are you hiding from me?! Come on, I get it, it’s a competitive world out there but PLEASE let me in on your secret.”

The Toyota managers are perplexed. They don’t know what else they can do. They are adamant that they aren’t hiding anything from you.

…and so, rather than go straight back home empty handed, you ask if you can work with Toyota to experience what day-to-day work is actually like. They humbly agree to your request.

And six months later your mind has been totally blown!

You really get it….no, REALLY GET IT!

You couldn’t see the wood for the trees but now it’s as obvious as can be.

It’s all about the environment created by management’s actions, which come from their beliefs and behaviours about human beings: about society, about customers…and, most profoundly, about employees.

This is invisible on a factory visit! But it’s still there. It’s simply ‘in the DNA’.

Sure, you could provide a list of attributes as to what this looks like…but management can’t just do them, they have to believe in them – in fact, ‘be’ them!

Further, there’s nothing to be ‘implemented’ because it can’t be!

Everything flows from management’s beliefs and behaviours: It’s from these that Toyota creates new principles, methods and tools all the time…and throws out old ones that are no longer appropriate. Their systems thinking and human thinking is solid and profound, whilst their method is dynamic and agile.

…and the realisation sinks in: No wonder Toyota are happy to open their door to anyone. The thing that makes them great can’t be copied. It has to be lived and breathed…and nurtured from the shop floor all the way up. Oh sh1t!

…and so to your new headache: you totally ‘get it’ but how on earth do you change your organisational system – now that is THE nut to crack. That would be transformational!

Reflection time:

So ‘On the surface’, ‘Under the skin’ or ‘In the DNA’: What level of transformation are you playing at?

…if you are at level 1 or 2 then it’s not actually transformation.

…if you are truly at level 3, then here’s the final mind blowing bit – it is self-sustaining.

To close: I have been asking myself a HUGE question for a fair while now: Can management’s beliefs and behaviours change within a large floating (i.e. short-term thinking) shareholder owned organisation.  I’m nearly there with writing down my thoughts. Watch this space…


1. Just Toyota? I use Toyota in this story since everyone knows who they are…and visits to their factories is precisely what happened regularly over the last several decades. But it isn’t just Toyota.

Your own ‘Toyota’ factory visit could be to another great organisation…and it needn’t be a factory making products – it could be a service organisation. Handelsbanken would be a great financial services example.

Though beware, there aren’t that many ‘true Toyotas’ out there. And perhaps none that have sustained it for so long.

2. ‘John’: He’s even called John in the true story – John Krafcik, a young researcher on Womack’s MIT research team…and those were his words back in 1987 (as recalled by Womack) to give birth to the Lean label.

3. Writing it down: Ohno finally relented when he retired in 1978 and wrote a book on TPS.

4. Clarification: I think a great deal of Lean Thinking, but not a lot about ‘LEAN’ – the implementation movement. I respect Womack and Jones, and their writings…but I note that my favourite Womack book is ‘Gemba Walks’ written about a decade after ‘Lean Thinking’ in which he humbly reflects that it was about far more than the tools and the principles. It was really about the management system (or, in my words, the DNA).

People don’t change their minds!

hugh-title-pictureSo a manager stands on a stage and lectures a group of people (or is that ‘thrusts hero opinions upon them’?) about how they should behave at work, and what ‘check box’ traits they should be looking for in others.

Within the bluster is a seemingly bizarre sentence stated as fact: That people don’t actually change their minds.

Is this true? How about some excellent examples of where you might agree:

  • a ‘Boris Johnson-loving’ Brexiteer at loggerheads with a ‘Yes to Europe’ standard bearer;
  • a Trump ‘nut’ arguing with a Hillary ‘supporter’;
  • a French secularist quarrelling with a Burkini wearer;
  • [name any other issue around the world and find people from opposing camps]

…what do you expect will be achieved by holding a ‘debate’ between these two sides?

Well, the best case scenario is that they retain their current views…but the worst case is that their positions will become firmer, their views more militant, and their mindsets become less respectful of (those that have now firmly become) their ‘opponents’1.

(Why) don’t we change our minds?

I recall reading an article that said a similar ‘people don’t change their mind’ thing…so I searched around the inter-web to see what I could find. Now, there are plenty of articles out there with headlines like ‘Why people don’t change their minds – even when faced with the facts’ so, yep, I was getting warm in my search…

…and after digging, reading, and a bit more digging, I find that there are two parts to it:

  1. Why do we form the opinions that we do?; and then
  2. Why do we cling on to them so tenaciously?

Now, many brilliant books have been written on the 1st part, covering all the weird and wonderful irrationality going on inside the human brain so I won’t attempt to summarise them here. If you want to ‘see for yourself’ then pick one of these up2 and have a read – they can be very entertaining!

But let’s go to the 2nd point: why do we cling on to these views once formed?

Here are a couple of explanations given:

Self-affirmation theory: individuals are driven to protect their self-integrity.

Hence, once you’ve decided something (especially if you make this public) then you are into ‘protection’ territory.

Cultural-cognition theory: the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact…to values that define their cultural identities (i.e. with the view of the groups with which we most strongly identify).

The key to this is the presence of doubt in respect of facts. If there’s no real dispute about something (e.g. that it’s currently raining outside) then there’s no challenge of values.

The doubt point is important, and was called out within research conclusions from this field of study3:

“…doubt turns people into stronger advocates…this effect is stronger if someone’s identity is threatened, if the belief is important to them, and if they think that others will listen. It all fits with a pattern of behaviour where people evangelise to strengthen their own faltering beliefs.”

…and the following is worth reading a couple of times and pondering:

 “The present research also offers a warning to anyone on the receiving end of an advocacy attempt. Although it is natural to assume that a persistent and enthusiastic advocate of a belief is brimming with confidence, the advocacy might in fact signal that the individual is boiling over with doubt.”

So back to that lecture:

What struck me about being told the ‘we don’t change our minds’ statement is that it questioned the whole basis of the lecture being dealt out to the group of people listening. If people don’t change their minds then why lecture them on your opinions? (i.e. attempting power/coercive or rational change)…you’ve just implied that there’s no point!

Now, I’d like to suggest an obvious flaw in the presenter’s logic about change.

Yes, people may be devoted to their (currently held) beliefs but they (including you and I) demonstrably do sometimes change their minds…and perhaps it is worth considering the massively important question: What was it that got them to change their minds?

Enter that lovely idea of normative change – true change arising through experiential learning.

I’ll describe a rather nice example:

I was watching a TV programme recently presented by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (River Cottage chef).

Hugh is a favourite eco-warrior of mine and his programme was all about the amount of waste within our daily lives…and a call to action to do something about it.

hugh-binsHugh picked an ‘average’ street in a Manchester suburb and joined the bin (garbage) men and their truck, on the weekly rubbish collection. He then ‘went through their bins’ back at the waste processing plant, gathering together what he found – mounds of discarded clothes, wasted food, unwanted electrical goods….and so on.

Now, Hugh looked into lots of different waste angles during his programme…but I want to focus on one of these, which makes the relevant point for this post:

Of particular note was the amount of metal, plastic and glass that had been thrown into the general rubbish bin – i.e. unsorted and therefore due for landfill or incineration – even though everyone in the street had been provided with recycling bins and instructions on what should and shouldn’t be put in them.

Why weren’t people separating their recyclable waste from the rest?

recyclingA great question!

So, where would be a good place to investigate?

Well, with someone who utterly refuses to separate their waste because they “don’t believe in it”. Can you see where this is going…

You may be able to influence those already on the cusp of change but if you want to appreciate the real problem then, however uncomfortable this might be, you need to find and work with a ‘true disbeliever’.

Hugh asked around the street and found the perfect person to ask: A young women, perhaps in her 20s, with (what us old farts might think as) an ‘attitude’ on life and what it owes her (I’m sure she’s a great person 🙂 ).

…and so Hugh sat down for a cup of tea and a chat with her about recycling…BUT, the important bit, here’s how he did it:

He observed her environment and then, from asking some non-judgemental questions about her behaviours, he listened to what she believed….and when she said something of particular note, rather than pointing out the counter-logic he simply checked that he had fully understood her belief – perhaps with a further clarifying question and/or repeating it back to her to confirm.

Importantly, he never sneered or scoffed at her responses (which would have been a direct challenge to her self-integrity) – he politely listened and showed a genuine interest in what she thought.

…and she came out with the classics:

  • “Why should I be wasting my time separating stuff, it’s not my problem – it’s ‘theirs’ to sort out”;
  • “There’s no point in separating the plastic, metal and glass from the rest because they all go straight to the landfill anyway”;
  • “Even if they don’t go straight to landfill [i.e. they go somewhere to be processed], nothing actually of worth is done with the materials that they separate out”; and
  • “It’s just a waste of time.”

I hope you can see that, if this is what someone believes, you can tell them till you are ‘blue in the face’ that this isn’t the case, and even tell them why…but where would this get you?

Even more interesting is that if ‘I’ believe the opposite of her recycling statements, how do I know that I’m right? Perhaps she’s right!

…and so we can see that we have arrived at that point – two people holding opposing views. Arguing about it (even by producing supposed ‘facts’) isn’t going to be productive. This is no different to telling a Trump ‘nut’ why they should be a Hilary ‘supporter’.

So, given the ‘people don’t change their mind’ narrative, is this the end? Should Hugh ‘pack up and go home’? Of course not…

Hugh has nicely set up a potential dose of normative learning. He’s found out what she believes, so he now knows what experiences to provide her with…and given his genuine interest in what she has to say, he has established the necessary level of trust to take things further.

He therefore gets her acceptance to go along (with a whole group from her neighbourhood – spot the cultural identity bit!) to see the recycling plant. Importantly, he goes with them to show that he, just as much as they, needs to experience it – he could be wrong too!4

The visit

hugh-waste-visitSo they start at the beginning: a manual sorting line with workers at a conveyor belt removing all the things that the recycling plant can’t (currently) process. Eeeew – no one said it was going to be pretty!

Learning number 1: Seeing what waste the current process can and can’t cope with.

They move on to see an awesome magnet sucking the iron-containing metal off the moving line. Cool!

Next, the line goes over big crushing teeth – gravity bounces the glass over them and smashes it into little bits which fall through the gaps…but the plastic and aluminium glides over the teeth. Glass separated – Awesome!

After that, another magnet gets to work on the aluminium – but this is different than earlier because it repels it off the line. Groovy!

And the impressive finale: the remaining plastic goes over a conveyor belt ‘cliff’ containing sophisticated cameras. These cameras can ‘see’ the types of plastic, which then rapidly trigger lasers to shoot certain plastics in differing directions.  Amazing!

And so to the end, to see big cubes of metal, glass, aluminium and different plastics stacked to the ceiling.

Learning number 2: Our waste can be, and is, separated into types.

Hugh’s group of observers are really impressed. What a ride!

Except for that young women – our disbeliever. Yes, she thought it was really cool technology and all that…but “I still don’t believe anything gets done with it.”

But Hugh’s not done – he takes them to a display where he has gathered together examples of what each recycled material goes on to become, from clothes through to bike frames. She picks out a really cool branded jacket, puts it on…and it fits. She loves it…she wants it…Hugh tells her that it was made from a bundle of recycled plastic…and, yes, she can have it.

Learning’s number 3 and 4: Something is done with the recycled materials…and I like the result, so it’s not a waste of time!

People don’t change – really?

Well, you’ve guessed it, through the power of television Hugh goes back to see our disbeliever in her daily life some time later and she is happily sorting her rubbish into what can and can’t be recycled.

Let’s go back to the top: if Hugh had ‘given her a lecture’, then she wouldn’t have changed. Worse, her efforts at arguing back would have made her more militant – she would have justified herself!


I accept that there is likely to be a small percentage of people who, even after what might appear to be compelling experiential evidence, might not change their mind…but I believe that there are far fewer people like this than we might imagine.

The experiences required to alter our thinking will likely differ for each of us…and this comes back to the need to understand each of our underlying beliefs and behaviours if we are to effect meaningful change.

Further, some people might need several doses and a longer time period for the normative medicine to take effect on them. We each process our thoughts in some quite bizarre ways. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ operation….but that’s because we are all different…which is a great thing.


And, of course, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.” (Upton Sinclair)

So, back to the world of work

lecture“But that normative stuff will take far too long! We’ve only got time for a lecture.”

Hahaha…and look where all those lectures are getting you!

Such a response reminds me of a wonderful quote:

“Managers will try anything easy that doesn’t work before they will try anything hard that does” (Womack)

And to those of us trying to move our organisations from ‘command and control’ to a better place, we can ‘tell them’ about the effects of cascaded objectives, targets, ratings, rewards etc…but don’t expect change from this.

We need them to see reality for themselves.

You may find that you can’t just take managers ‘to the gemba’ (the place where the work is done) BUT:

  • you can talk with, and observe, them to find out what they believe; and
  • you can look for learning opportunities as and when situations arise

i.e. bide your time, look for the instance…and then engineer a chance for experiential learning…and keep doing this until they start to question their own beliefs.

A nice quote that fits with this: “Only describe, don’t explain” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

i.e. show them what is actually happening, but let them ponder and explain it for themselves….but provide them with help along the way.

To close:

So, do people change their mind? Of course they do…but not because you told them to!

And therefore, given all of the above, have I changed your mind? Of course not! I’ve merely explained something to you. You would need to go out and discover normative change for yourself….but I might have made you curious to do so 🙂


1. Debates: This is why the media just love the debate format. It does little for humanity, but a lot for ratings.

2. Irrationality: The first such book I read was called ‘Irrationality’, written by the late Stuart Sutherland (Professor of Psychology) – a good read. The last one I read was ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman.

3. Research: David Gal and Derek Rucker, North-western University referred to within this 2010 MINNPOST article

4. Could Hugh have been wrong? I realise that this is ‘Television’ and Hugh will have done his homework first (i.e. been to the recycling plant and seen for himself).

5. Note to councils around the world: If you really want people to recycle, and do so really well, then you need to show them (including me!) what happens….and every time that you make a step-change improvement in the capability of your process, you need to inform us of this and show us.

Farmers and Facilitation

FarmerI’ve been meaning to write a post about promotion (into, and through the hierarchy of management) for a while now…it’s taken me a bit to frame it. Here’s ‘part 1’:

Before considering promotion we should ask ourselves…

What is the work of management?

A great deal has been written on this question. Womack’s essay ‘The work of management’ gives us an all too familiar view as to what management actually means in practice:

“Most managers I observe spend most of their time with incidental work – box ticking, meetings that reach no actionable conclusions, report writing, personnel reviews that don’t develop personnel, etc. And in the time left over they do rework. By the latter I mean the fire fighting to get things back on course as processes malfunction. Most managers seem to believe that this is their ‘real’ work and their highest value to their organisation.”

Is this what we actually want our managers to be doing? Does this create value or is it just about survival?

Who do we hire/ promote into management?

In another of his essays, ‘Fewer Heroes, More Farmers’, Womack explains that when he asked a Command & Control CEO at a very large American Corporation about his management hiring/ promotion logic he got the following in reply: “I search for heroic leaders to galvanize my business units. I give them metrics to meet quickly. When they meet them they are richly rewarded. When they don’t, I find new leaders.”

Womack went on to ask this CEO, given the very high level of turnover of his business unit heads, “why does your company need so many heroes? Why don’t your businesses consistently perform at a high level so that no new leaders are needed? And why do even your apparently successful leaders keep moving on?”

He got the usual answers in reply: “business is tough, leadership is the critical scarce resource, and that a lot of turnover indicates a dynamic management culture.”

…and yet such businesses preside over:

  • A confusion as to its purpose (a mismatch between what is stated and reality);
  • The constant rolling out of the latest ‘revitalising’ programme from the top;
  • Poorly performing processes, that tend to get worse instead of better;
  • Dispirited people operating these broken processes at every level of the organisation; with
  • Mini-heroes everywhere devising workarounds.

Rather than heroes, Womack suggests that we need farmers whose role is to steadily tend every important process, continually asking three simple questions:

  1. Is the business purpose of the process [in the eyes of the customer] correctly defined? [and Seddon would add ‘is its capability measured?’]
  2. Is action steadily being taken to create value, flow and pull in every step of the process while taking out waste?
  3. Are all of the people touching the process actively engaged in making it better?

“This is the gemba mentality of the farmer who, year after year, plows a straight furrow, mends the fence and obsesses about the weather, even as the heroic pioneer or hunter who originally cleared the land moves on.

Why do we have so many heroes and so few farmers, and such poor results in most of our organisations? Because we’re blind to the simple fact that business heroes usually fail to transform businesses. They create short-term improvement, at least on the official metrics. But these gains either aren’t real or they can’t be sustained because no farmers are put in place to tend the fields. Wisely, these heroes move on before this becomes apparent.

Meanwhile, we are equally blind to the critical contribution of the farmers who should be our heroes. These are the folks who provide the steady-paced continuity at the core of every lean enterprise”.

Now, after reading the above back to myself, I can feel a back lash from the current cool management buzz of ‘everything today is about innovation!’…as in “but the world is ever changing Steve! We can’t just rely on Continuous Improvement – we’ve got to constantly reinvent ourselves or else we will get left behind!”

I agree! What is written above isn’t confined to making small step changes and doesn’t constrain discontinuous (breakthrough) improvements. Womack’s 3 questions equally apply for the seeds of innovation to blossom within a healthy working environment.

Conversely, hero management with financial targets and contingent rewards can seriously damage the chances of true and meaningful innovation from happening. (Both Alfie Kohn and Dan Pink explain the research showing the harm that incentives do to innovation).

If your purpose is clear and everyone is working together towards it (not towards individual targets) then you will likely alternate between many small steps and infrequent leaps as new ideas and technologies come along and existing ones are steadily improved.

Who should we want as our managers?

“The greatness in people comes out only when they are led by great leaders” (Akio Toyoda)

Liker, in his excellent book ‘The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership’, explains Toyota’s leadership development model. He explains it in four building blocks:

(Note: whilst I am mixing the words ‘leader’ and ‘manager’, there is a big difference between them. Please reflect on Confusion over two words)

First, to be considered for leadership, a person has to be committed to self-development i.e. to constantly seek to improve themselves and their skills. This is enabled and assessed by those ahead1 of them providing suitable challenges, space and coaching to allow self-development to occur.

Clarification: You may have years of experience and/or rolls of qualifications…but this doesn’t demonstrate that you have, or can, self-develop:

“What is often mistaken for 20 years’ experience is just 1 year’s experience repeated 20 times” (Source unknown)

Not everyone will be up for self-development2. Clearly, Toyota are looking for those who can and want to grow. This is in stark contrast to organisations that want merely to bring in people from outside to ‘implement here what they have done to people elsewhere’ (but now appear to be running away from this!)

Second: Once a person has suitably demonstrated their ability and desire to self develop, then they need to show the development of others. To be clear: this does not mean merely coaching (supposedly) star performers or favourites (the ‘chosen few’)…it means developing everyone. In fact, your ability to develop someone where this appears challenging* is a sure sign of your development capabilities. Liker uses the Toyota quote that “the best measure of a leader’s success is what is accomplished by those they trained3.” It’s not about what you can do; it’s about what they can now do because of you (even though they may not comprehend this link).

(*The greatest case study I know of this is what Toyota achieved at NUMMI with ex-GM employees who were considered the worst of the worst. They re-hired them and turned them into the best. The problem wasn’t a shortage of talent, as we are so often led to believe, but an inability to engage and develop the talents lying dormant within people).

Third: So you are a self-developer and can develop others. It now becomes about your ability to enable daily improvement – facilitating groups of people through constant improvement: being a farmer as described above.

The focus is not on attempting to force improvement (top down) but in enabling, encouraging and coaching improvement from the bottom up.

Clarification: This is NOT about that ’empowerment’ word!

…and, finally, Fourth: It is now about ensuring that the right big-picture challenges are set, pursued and accomplished by the people and, in so doing, that this causes much experimentation, reflection and learning.

None of this leadership development logic is about being promoted because you are the best at performing your current job or that you are a hardened ‘go get ’em’ management hero. All of it is about your ability to facilitate improvement through others.

Managers instead of Consultants

…this leads me to observe that many a ‘command and control’ manager brings in consultants (or ‘Black Belts’) to facilitate his/her team through the likes of a Kaizen/ Rapid Improvement Event.

  • Worse still, such facilitators often prefer that the manager isn’t involved in these improvement events (except as ‘statesman’ at the beginning and ‘rubber stamper’ at the end) because their presence would seriously hinder what the people can achieve.
  • To add insult to injury, such an absent manager has attempted to delegate their improvement responsibilities and thus finds themselves even further from the work (the gemba) and with new/ higher barriers between themselves and their people.

…owch! If this is the case (and, sadly, it often is) then this is a very poor state to be in.

At Toyota, facilitation of improvement is what their managers are for! And, rather than a week-long ‘point improvement’ event performed every (say) 6 months, this facilitation should be ongoing.

You might respond that “Nice idea Steve…but our managers don’t have very good facilitation skills. We need expert practitioners to come in”. And that is precisely why Toyota looks for those people within its ranks that have the potential as facilitators of improvement…and then develops them into leaders.

Rother makes clear that The primary task of Toyota’s managers and leaders does not revolve around improvement per se, but around increasing the improvement capability of people. That capability is what, in Toyota’s view, strengthens the company. Toyota’s managers and leaders develop people who in turn improve processes through the improvement kata [pattern].

Developing the improvement capability of people at Toyota is not relegated to the human resources or the training and development departments. It is part of every day’s work in every area…”

Sense-check: It may be that your current managers are (or could be) great facilitators. However, if they have to use a ‘command and control’ management system on their people then it is unlikely that such fantastic skills will get a chance to blossom and deliver the potential value within. Worse, their efforts will likely clash with all that commanding and controlling going on.

Next time you feel the need to bring in facilitators, reflect on why. Is it because your managers:

  • don’t have the capability? or
  • do have the potential, but are constrained by the management system that they are required to operate within?

If your answer is a), then develop them. If it’s b), you have far bigger fish to fry…but don’t let this stop you from doing anything – remember the Two Parallel Tracks.


To close:

  • this post (Part 1) considers who we should be promoting, and why;
  • Part 2 will turn this all on its head and question the promotion career ladder logic. In short: we can’t all ‘get to the top’ and neither should we all want to.


  1. Ahead: I use the word ‘ahead’ rather than ‘above because I’d like the reader to get out of a ‘superiors in the hierarchy’ mindset and, instead, think about people who happen to have been promoted to more senior positions because they are more advanced on this leadership development journey. This is merely a matter of timing, rather than importance.
  2. Fixed vs. Growth mindset: Professor Carol Dweck’s research suggests that we can judge how good people will be at learning new skills – our capacity to learn is determined by our beliefs as to whether our abilities are innate or can be learned. Dweck suggests a continuum with two extremes: A Fixed mindset and a Growth mindset. Don’t despair of those already in leadership positions that appear to have ‘fixed’ mindsets. This may very well be down to the environment in which they work (and have always worked) within. The important bit is to assess them once their environment is changed to encourage self-development and growth.
  3. Trained: the use of the ‘trained’ word in this quote applies to its meaning as is used in sport. Rother notes that “The concept of training in sports is quite different from what ‘training’ has come to mean in our companies. In sport it means repeatedly practicing an actual activity under the guidance of a coach. That kind of training, if applied as part of an overall strategy to develop new behaviour patterns is effective for changing behaviours.”

Benchmarking – worse than cheating

CheatingDo you remember back to your school days, and the scandalous crime of cheating by copying someone else’s work?

Why was school-boy (& girl) copying seen as such a sin?

  1. The most obvious reason in traditional education is that you are cheating the ‘grading’ system such that people will think you are ‘better’ than you (currently) are;
  2. But, what’s far worse is that you haven’t actually gone through the learning and development process, for yourself…which is what education should be about.

So why am I comparing and contrasting ‘benchmarking’ with school-boy copying? Let’s first look at a definition:

“Benchmarking: Managers compare the performance of their products or processes externally with those of competitors and best-in-class companies and internally with other operations within their own firms that perform similar activities.

The objective of Benchmarking is to find examples of superior performance and to understand the processes and practices driving that performance.

Companies then improve their performance by tailoring and incorporating these best practices into their own operations.” (from Bain & Co. website – a well regarded Management Consulting organisation selling its benchmarking services)

So, essentially Benchmarking is akin to deliberately (and usually openly) finding out who the best kids in the class are and then trying to copy them…with this being seen as a logical and acceptable thing to do. Business is clearly different to Education (right?)

A number of things strike me about this ‘benchmarking’ definition:

  • It assumes that, if I find someone with excellent ‘result metrics’ (in respect of what I chose to look for) then:
    • the metrics I see are true (undistorted) and tell the whole picture (e.g. cope with differing purposes, explain variation,…); and consequently that
    • I should be doing what they are doing…which implies that I can easily, correctly and completely unpick how they arrived at these results;
  • It is about managers looking for answers externally and, essentially, telling the workers which areas will change, and to what degree (commanding and controlling);
  • It is looking at what other organisations are doing rather than what the customer requires (wrong focus)…and likely constrains true innovation;
  • It focuses on component parts of the system, rather than the system as a whole (which will likely destroy value in the system);
  • It incorporates the related, and equally flawed, idea of ‘best practise’ (rather than understanding that, setting aside the above criticisms, there may be better practises but no such thing as perfection);

Sure, we should be aware of what other organisations, including our competitors, are doing for the good of their customers but attempting to copy them is far too simplistic (see my very first post re. ‘perspective’ ).

It is interesting to read what Jim Womack (et al at MIT) had to say about benchmarking after they spent many years studying the global car industry.

“…we now feel that benchmarking is a waste of time for managers that understand lean thinking. Benchmarkers who discover their ‘performance’ is superior to their competitors have a natural tendency to relax, whilst [those] discovering that their ‘performance’ is inferior often have a hard time understanding exactly why. They tend to get distracted by easy-to-measure or impossible-to-emulate differences in costs, scale or ‘culture’…

…our earnest advice…is simple: To hell with your competitors; compete against perfection…this is an absolute rather than a relative standard which can provide the essential North Star for any organisation. In its most spectacular application, it has kept the Toyota organisation in the lead for forty years.”

And to compete against perfection, you must first truly understand your own system:

“Comparing your organisation with anything is not the right place to start change. It will lead to unreliable conclusions and inappropriate or irrelevant actions. The right place to start change, if you want to improve, is to understand the ‘what and why’ of your current performance as a system.” (John Seddon)

Each organisation should have its own purpose, which attracts its own set of customers, who have their specific needs (which we need to constantly listen to)…, which then determine the absolute perfection we need to be continually aiming for.

You can see that, if we use benchmark metrics, we usually end up back with the Target/ Incentive game. We can expect distorted results and ‘wrong’ behaviours.

The real point – Experimentation and learning: Now you might respond “okay, so we won’t benchmark on result metrics…but surely we should be benchmarking on the methods being used by others?”

The trouble with this goes back to the 2nd, and most consequential, ‘sin’ of school boy copying – if you copy another’s method, you won’t learn and you won’t develop.

“We should not spend too much time benchmarking what others – including Toyota – are doing. You yourself are the benchmark:

  • Where are you now?
  • Where do you want to be next?
  • What obstacles are preventing you from getting there?

…the ability of your company to be competitive and survive lies not so much in solutions themselves, but in the capability of the people in your organisation to understand a situation and develop solutions. (Mike Rother)

When you ‘benchmark’ against another organisation’s methods you see their results and you (perhaps) can adequately describe what you see, but:

  • you don’t understand how they got to where they are currently at, nor where they will be able to get to next;
  • you are not utilising the brains and passion of your workers, to take you where they undeniably can if you provide the environment to allow them to do so.

…and, as a result, you will remain relatively static (and stale) despite what changes in method you copy.

“When you give an employee an answer, you rob them of the opportunity to figure it out themselves and the opportunity to grow and develop.” (John Shook)