Noted Toyota Expert Says Programmed Participation Is the Key to Successful Business Transformation

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The author of a best-selling book on the Toyota Product Development System says getting as many workers involved in defining change promotes buy-in and is more likely to result in success than programs handed down from the top.

Product Development for the Lean Enterprise: Why Toyota’s System Is Four Times More Productive and How You Can Implement it

Companies around the world are finding that in our fast-moving, global economy, the old way of managing through “command and control” just doesn’t cut it. The top guy and his surrogates simply can’t be everywhere at once. Employees and workers down the line need to be empowered to make decisions on the spot and to keep things moving forward. For most businesses this means organizing into empowered, interlocking teams.

But how can this kind of wholesale change be implemented?

According to Michael N. Kennedy, author of the popular book, “Product Development for the Lean Enterprise: Why Toyota’s System Is Four Times More Productive and How You Can Implement it,” at least two methods exist for implementing major change. The common approach is called the “define-and-convince” model, in which an assigned expert, or expert team, defines the change specifics and does its best to convince the rest of the organization to follow its blueprint. This model works best in small companies, largely because of the close link between the company’s leadership and its workers. But in large companies, Kennedy says the process is slow, seldom wins widespread buy-in, and often requires extensive infrastructure and procedural controls to maintain the change.

“The other method is the participative model,” Kennedy said. “The leader defines change goals and challenges the work force to define and execute the changes. The actual process involves a series of facilitated large-group sessions for convergence and decision-making, which are positioned around smaller group activities.”

Kennedy said it is in these smaller session that the testing and learning takes place. This approach works because rapid assimilation of knowledge and buy-in usually takes place across the organization. A frequent stumbling block Kennedy has encountered is that old-line managers often hesitate to use it because it requires the leaders to trust workers with the details, instead of what they perceive as experts.

Kennedy said, “To make change happen, leaders need to set targets and make strategic decisions. The people who have to live with the details make up the group that ought to determine the details. To make sure change happens in a timely fashion, milestones need to be set that will mark key points of system integration. These large group sessions are forums for defining, understanding and decision-making on major integration issues.”

Directional decisions might be made before the large integration meetings in change-agent, cross-functional team meetings to winnow down the options. These decisions will be reviewed and the rationale explained at the larger meeting. But to assure buy in, final decisions selected from viable options should be left to the larger group. For this reason, milestone events should be attended by virtually everyone in the company who will be affected by the change and the new procedures.

“The more who take part, the better,” Kennedy said. “This is how ownership is achieved. When people take part in deciding how things will work, they are much more likely to do their best to make the new way work than if change is forced upon them.”

Kennedy’s book, which outlines the participatory process, is published by The Oaklea Press. Established in 1995, Oaklea specializes in business books that help executives run their businesses more effectively, including the implementation of lean manufacturing, and management by empowered, interlocking teams. More about Oaklea and the business books it publishes can be found at


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Stephen Martin
Oaklea Press
804 281-5685
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