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Japan Taught Toyota How to Pick Leaders

This is part 3 of a larger series on "The Toyota Way" where I compare the culture of Toyota with the culture of Japan to see what about Toyota's culture is unique.

Section III

Section III of the “The Toyota Way” Jeffrey Liker begins be touting the differences between Toyota CEO Fujio Cho and the CEOs of different automotive companies (Bob Lutz, Carlos Ghosn, and company).

The main points being:

1.Fujio Cho’s installment as a manager and his management style wasn’t an effort to save a company in crisis unlike his peers.

2.Fujio Cho did not reorganize the structure of the company as a means for change like his peers.

Liker is entirely correct in these claims. However, the reason behind this is deeply Japanese and not discussed in the book.

Fuji Cho: not saving a company in crisis

Seniority System in Japan

Japanese companies typically (heavily) rely on seniority system as a means to identify leaders in an organization. Because of this, Japan is free of the C-suite culture of attrition among executives. In this sense, Carlos Ghosn of Nissan stands out from tradition in Japanese companies.

What Makes Seniority System Work?

In my online course I go into a great deal of depth as to why seniority system dominates Japanese corporate culture and what makes it continue to work. However, broadly speaking, seniority system is the result of group oriented work. Success and failure of projects are more heavily attributed to groups rather than individual performance. Because of this, it is difficult to recognize an individual with a promotional role as a leader. The logical step is to select the senior most member of the team as the leader.

The Savior Complex

The western culture of selecting leaders based on individual performance I would present can be traced anthropologically to a “Savior Complex”.

In short, my theory is that many western organizations look for a chosen leader to act as a savior for their organization either in themselves or others. This narrative is fueled by western religions in which an anointed savior leads people to salvation. Alternatively, eastern religions such as Buddhism lack this archetype. Therefore, eastern cultures and Japan in particular do not see a leader as a person to change the status quo or “shake things up”.

I have written about this before in the blog post “Why Japanese Organizations Think Six Sigma is a Joke”. There was some opposition to the savior theory.

Image I used which probably caused some opposition

Growing Leaders and Zen Buddhism

Seniority system also goes hand in hand with Zen Buddhist pedagogy where learning takes place over a prolonged period of time where knowledge is deeply internalized.

This can often be seen in stereotypes propagated through martial arts movies. The master imparts his knowledge onto a student through a series of unrelated and seemingly menial tasks. Carrying buckets of water, scrubbing floors, etc.

This makes attrition from one organization to another more difficult because there is almost no way to know what a person was taught because it was never explicitly stated and difficult to put in a resume.

Deeply internalized learning

Toyota Breaks from Seniority System Sometimes...

Un-Japanese? Maybe not...

From time to time Toyota will break away from the seniority system to select leaders. Such as selecting Gary Convis to lead NUMMI and at times, selecting younger talented engineers to lead vehicle programs. In these cases Toyota is following a principle of "the right person for the right task at the right time" as opposed to seniority system. The concept of "the right person for the right task at the right time" goes along with Japanese ideals of natural order and Zen but hardly ever does this ideal supersede the more dogmatic notion of seniority.

It isn't so much the ideology itself which is non-traditional but going against ingrained patterns to follow a less comfortable ideology that was right for the organization.

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