By Rod Collins
One of the biggest challenges confronting business leaders today is learning how to manage at the speed of accelerating change. In times of great change, business advantage belongs to those who can move fast. But, as many of leaders are discovering, moving fast is not as easy as one might think. That’s because those who have mastered this new challenge have learned the paradoxical rule of speed: You have to slow down to move fast.
Perhaps no company has embraced this paradox and used its power to create competitive advantage better than the Toyota Motor Company. Well over 50 years ago, Toyota turned its back on conventional management wisdom, embraced new ways of thinking and acting, and, in the process, transformed a fledgling Japanese carmaker into the world’s largest automotive enterprise.
The “Toyota Way,” as it is known inside the company, is a set of management principles that recognize the importance of taking the time to thoroughly understand what’s important to customers, to make decisions slowly by consensus, and to become a learning organization through inclusive processes of continual reflection. Though it may appear counterintuitive, Toyota’s management discipline is most certainly designed for speed.
Toyota’s product development process is more than twice as efficient as its competitors. While it normally takes the typical automotive company two to three years to go from concept to delivery of a new car or truck, Toyota can design and develop a product in 12 months. The irony is that, if Toyota and a competitor were both to begin development of a new product on the exact same day, the competitor would be quicker to action while Toyota would be quicker to market. In the traditional company, planning and execution would likely be functionally separated with the design engineers using the first several months to draw up the blueprints for their new design. Once the design was complete, the engineers would pass the plans on to the production workers who would then tackle the development of the new model through a series of trial-and-error phases, solving unforeseen problems and executing necessary quick fixes to get the new model ready for market.
Meanwhile, at the time that the competitor would be beginning production, Toyota would be nowhere close to moving to action. Toyota’s managers, engineers, and production workers would still be building a consensus by considering all possible options for the product development and anticipating any potential problems that might occur in production. Toyota understands that being quick to market, while steadfastly holding to a commitment to quality, requires the upfront involvement of everyone involved in the production process. This type of consensus building takes an investment of time in the beginning of a project that pays back handsomely at the end.
The secret of Toyota’s incredible speed to market is counterintuitive to the command-and-control mindset. Traditional managers tend to be impatient “Type A” personalities who are always ready to act and who don’t have time to waste by sitting around and talking. For them, speed is about action. And action is about a solid plan, clear directives, and managers having the authority to make sure that everyone does his or her part. To the traditional way of thinking, getting things done is a matter of giving authority to the smartest people and trusting their judgments.
Toyota behaves very differently. The chief engineer, who has full accountability for delivering a new product, generally has no authority over the thousands of workers who will actually get the job done. By not having the power to direct others’ work, the only way the chief engineer can fulfill his or her accountability is by building a consensus among all involved. As a result, the cross-functional collaboration among the workers enables speedy implementation because the inevitable problems and issues that are inherent in any major initiative are uncovered and handled before the work actually begins, saving considerable amounts of both time and effort.
Toyota’s different way of managing demonstrates that the directives and the commands of authoritative take-charge leaders are not the pathway to market success in fast-changing times. At Toyota, it is completely unacceptable for a leader to choose a direction and then order everyone to go racing off in that direction. That’s why there are very few memos written at Toyota. These one-way communication vehicles don’t work when consensus is the way that things get done. Instead, people sit down and talk with each other until they reach a mutual understanding.
Toyota’s innovative management approach completely disavows the deep-seated belief of traditional managers that, unless they have the authority to command and control the workers, nothing will get done. It turns out that, especially in fast-changing times, the exact opposite is true. The best way to get things done faster and smarter is to hold leaders fully accountable for results and to make sure that they don’t have command or control authority. Then they will be forced to build consensus among the stakeholders by facilitating collective learning and building shared understanding. And, in the process, they will come to appreciate the paradox of speed: You have to slow down to move fast.
Rod has more than 30 years of experience in management positions of increasing responsibility in the healthcare industry. Rod is an innovative executive leader with sustained success in achieving financial, operational, and market growth objectives in challenging environments. He has extensive experience in serving as a catalyst for positive change and in building highly collaborative organizations.
Rod is also a member of our Speakers Bureau.
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