Reflections for life: Leading and learning to improve

I first met Katie Anderson in a cafe in Tokyo a few years ago when I was presenting some research at the ISQuA forum towards the end of my thesis. It turned out that we could have met before at a Lean conference in Brisbane, but it had taken the power of Twitter for the threads of our life paths to cross deliberately. I remember talking about how much I loved Katie’s blogs and we amusedly reflected together that Katie already had written more on her blog site, than I had at the beginning of the 4th year of my thesis… so she definitely had enough to write a book! So I was so very, very pleased and excited when I heard about ‘Learning to Lead; Leading to Learn’ and I have devoured reading it this weekend.

Katie and Joy in Tokyo in 2016

This post is my initial reflections on this super book. Four things have stood out for me and I take each in turn. First, the clever use of the weaving metaphor. Second, the way that Mr Yoshino chose to respond to the reality of his lifelong USA dream and third, the reflections on the learning from the marine business venture. Finally, I will reflect on the big message to me throughout, about learning as a deliberate daily leadership act, which comes through to me powerfully in this book.

First, the use of the weft and warp of cloth to structure the book is quite inspired. I love the clever way the book brings together the life and dreams of an individual, held taut by personal goals and values with the events and happenings of a career. I liked this even more given the connection that Toyota has with the rag trade, and my own connection with it. Samuel Crompton of ‘Spinning Jenny’ fame lived just up the road from where I live. Reading this book has makes me want to reconnect with my story of why I wanted to be an improvement engineer, my dreams and personal warp threads to ‘make things better’ for people. The helpful Hansei questions at the end of each chapter are a lovely way to personalise the book and sit back and ponder on what has just been read. My own pondering reminded me of the interconnection between manufacturing, quality improvement and healthcare, and my personal ‘why’, even when sometimes on a day to day basis it can be hard to see this pattern in the cloth or a career.

Second, the story of Mr Yoshino’s dream coming true and then not quite being as good in reality as in the hope. My goodness, what a story that I can certainly relate to, as I’m sure others can too. What I most love about this was the explicit reframing – ‘ok so how can I be the best here, even if I didn’t really come here with all my experiences, to do such menial tasks as getting cats out of trees’. It must have been a really hard time to come to terms with, yet Katie tells Mr Yoshino’s story with care and grace, and I feel privileged to have learnt from it. I can think of several times in my career when I have thought a great opportunity was on its way, and then reality was not quite as shiny as I had hoped and I know I haven’t reacted as gracefully. This story inspires me to do better when I find myself in such situations again, as inevitably I will; and to help others also in such situations.

Third, the story of Toyota Marine Sports. In this story, Katie has deftly woven together several threads of Mr Yoshino’s cloth, covering many characteristics that are often noted to be present when things go wrong. Cultural differences, difficult and sometimes dysfunctional relationships, the impact of geographical distance and spread, the challenges of outsourcing and joint ventures; the subtlety of the English language of ‘stopping support’ and the way that words can be felt as disrespectful to others, and the relief yet inadequacy of flown in, short term, improvement expertise without strong foundational commitment to build improvement locally. Katie cleverly conjures up that feeling in the pit of your stomach right at the beginning of something when you ‘know’ something isn’t right, but don’t know why yet, drawing together the clues that are easy to spot with hindsight. The strength for me of this story is that of leadership compassion: the artful and difficult to enact help request from Mr Yoshino to Mr Cho and the similarly compassionate leadership response back. Reflecting in leadership practice the long term values of responding to the pull of the andon cord signal, and to lead to learn. I can’t stop thinking about this story and what it might mean for me and my practice as a leader but also as a subordinate. Those who know me, know I can be blunt which tends towards more bluntness under pressure, rather than diplomacy and has left me reflecting on the ripples created. This section has left me thoughtful about my leadership learning and I’m grateful for those thoughts.

Together with these thoughts, this book has left me feeling inspired and eager to keep learning, which could be described as the books main aim. Whilst this book is in many ways about Toyota, and the Lean learning many have drawn from Toyota’s story, don’t come to read this book to learn more about Lean and improvement tools, this book is not about that at all. It is more foundational, and arguably important, than that. It is about leadership’s role in creating the conditions in which improvement can thrive. It is a book about the heart and soul of leading to learn in an organisation that values its people, as much if not more, than it’s service and product. By these values, Toyota helped itself grow, and it’s staff grow together, to be their best selves. And in doing so, helped an organisation be one of the highest quality, most productive organisations in the world, with a never ending quest for better. A culture that has led Toyota to be one of the most talked about organisations in the world for all the right reasons. This book builds on other learning for me about leadership choices, deliberate daily gestures and acts Leaders can choose everyday. The everyday habits that can be developed over time if leaders deliberately choose to ‘lead to learn’. For me, this book helps to unfold and reveal more about the ‘how’ to help people learn to lead and to lead to learn. To inspire their teams, to ensure improvement and to help their people weave their own way through their careers and their lives.

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