I figure the last day of the year is a good time to look back at the highs and lows – see who demonstrated real leadership in manufacturing and raised the bar for all of us; and to see who dropped the ball. There is no shortage of candidates for both spots – the most noteworthy leader and the most disappointing loser. The disastrous economy in 2009 really squeezed out the mediocre. Companies that grew – even survived - can stake a claim to being pretty well run. And those companies that got by on playing games and pursuing short term money grabs were largely exposed to be the poorly run outfits we knew them to be all along.
The lean leader who most impressed me in this tumultuous year is Bob Chapman from Barry-Wehmiller. His company is going to turn a profit, even in the face of a serious downturn in the market for the sort of capital equipment his company makes. Most important, he never wavered from his driving principles of a genuine commitment to the engagement and fulfillment of all of the people working for him. I know that I was deeply influenced not only hearing him speak, but seeing his actions that back up the talk. He is not the greatest public speaker, nor does he know much about the nuts and bolts of lean manufacturing. What he does have, however, are incredibly deeply embedded principles that he drives down to the lowest levels of the Barry-Wehmiller companies with relentless energy. Those principles are all about using the workplace as a tool to make life meaningful for the people who work for him. He takes a back seat to no one in terms of his faith in everyone working in his companies, and his absolute insistence that they all take a personal role in every aspect of the company. He is truly inspirational. Most important, he has stuck by those principles in tough times, and has proven that true respect for people is truly compatible with excellent business practices and excellent results.
As tempting and as easy as it would be to pick any one of a number of people involved in the GM debacle – from GM management to the government geeks who think manufacturing excellence is of negligible importance when compared to the work of sitting around conference rooms thinking great thoughts – the fact is that these are merely the bit players in the end game. The demise of Chrysler and GM has been a foregone conclusion within the lean community for years – we have only been watching from the sidelines to see how it plays out.
No, sad to say the clear lean failure – the most striking and noteworthy loser – is Akio Toyoda, the grandson of Toyota's real creative force, Kiichiro Toyda and the chairman of the company who was put in place in June to get the company back on track.
A California man, his wife, their daughter and another family member were killed in a Lexus on August 28 as a result of accelerator problems that were well known to Toyota and to the Transportation Safety board. The details of the crash are frightening, and the results were horrible.
Almost three weeks later, Toyota told their dealers to 'inspect the floor mats'. Another couple of weeks later, Toyota announced that it planned to order a recall.
On November 25 – 89 days after the tragedy, and years after Toyota first knew there was a quality problem – the recall was announced. Concerning a mea culpa press conference in which Toyoda 'deeply apologized', a University of California – San Diego professor said, “If you’re Mr. Toyoda and you’re coming in at this point, you don’t have many options of how you make a big impact.”
In fact, there is something Mr Toyoda could have done and should have done to "make a big impact". Toyota is legendary for empowering everyone to stop the line when a defect is discovered. He failed to demonstrate the conviction and the courage to empower himself to do the same. The defect was discovered and he would not, did not push the big red button for 89 days. He has shown that the principles that drove Toyota to such lofty heights are not a part of his core.
He did not cause the quality problems, and the slide at Toyota is not his fault. But he was faced with a test of principles, and he failed the test. Another academic at the aforementioned press conference hit the nail on the head: Said Robert Dujarric, from Temple University, "Sometimes, this apology business is a way to avoid taking real action or responsibility. It makes you want to say: ‘Don’t be sorry, just do something about it.'" In other words – show some leadership.
So there you have it – a real winner who knows what is important and does not let other people or trying circumstances dissuade him from his beliefs; and another who clearly does not know what he believes or is trying to accomplish. Having the right principles and acting on them through thick and thin is the real difference between leading and losing, in my opinion anyway.
Have a very happy and prosperous new year!