One summer Akio Toyoda disappeared from public view. In reality Toyoda, a member of the company’s founding family, was very much in view if you were looking on the asphalt of a dealership in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As Michelle Maynard writes in the New York Times, Toyoda, who will become company’s new president this June, was on his hands and knees inspecting the undercarriage of the new Toyota Tundra.
Unlike most of Toyota’s product line, the full-size pick up was plagued with problems that forced Toyota to issue recall notices. As Maynard notes, what Toyoda was practicing was a time-honored tradition in the Toyota Production System, called “genchi genbutsu,” translated as “go to the spot.” That is, find out where the trouble is through first-hand observation.
Genchi genbutsu, or trouble shooting, is a practice prescribed in “lean thinking” — an approach to productivity that marries two complementary concepts: improvement and learning. The part of lean that involves trouble-shooting is something that every manager can put into practice as a means of not simply delivering continuous improvement, but of finding out what’s working and what’s not.
Recessions are a prime time to practice trouble shooting for two reasons. One, managers are challenged to do more with less; two, managers may have more time due to the economic slowdown. Most especially, trouble shooting can be essential to optimizing execution and so for that reason it makes good sense. To implement your own form of trouble shooting, consider three questions:
What is the real problem? Dysfunction is often apparent. For example, a product does not perform to specification. Or a process fails to deliver a consistent outcome. Diagnosing the problem requires the discipline to find the root cause. A product failure could be because of a faulty part; a process failure could result from a missed step. You do not know until you take time to investigate.
How do we fix it? Sometimes, as with product recalls, the fix can be costly. Other times it can be solved by a simple product or process redesign. Judging what it required takes an experienced hand with strong diagnostic skills, but also savvy to understand how to make the most effective solution and do it expeditiously.
Who is best suited to fix it? Putting the right people on the job is essential. Not everyone is a born problem-solver. You want to have people who like asking questions but more importantly have the facility to analyze and implement solutions. You also want people with a degree of tenacity, those who are willing to stick with it until they find a solution.
An important part of implementing trouble shooting is that it puts the manager into closer contact with people doing the work. As all experienced managers know, nothing good can happen without the input and buy-in of people doing the work. And for all the emphasis that companies put on execution, too frequently they omit the human aspect of bringing initiatives to life. By talking and listening to people on the line, or in the cubicles, managers find out what is going well and what requires improvement.
Trouble shooting by itself will not generate value but without its practice, organizations will find themselves repeating mistakes and worse failing to capitalize on lessons learned. And in times of turbulence that is something that cannot be overlooked.
First posted on HBR.org 5.26/2009