How Toyota Can Teach IT To Keep Things Fresh

by drjim on December 15, 2008

Toyota Has Several Ways That It Uses To Keep Employees Engaged

Toyota Has Several Ways To Prevent Processes From Becoming Stale

Despite all the talk about innovation these days, we know how things really are. It’s way too easy for us to set up IT processes and procedures that we use to run our IT shops and then over time they become part of a larger “That’s The Way We Do Things Here” culture.

The problem with this is that over time things change. Solutions that were once the best way to do things may no longer be the correct way to be doing something. However, we get caught in our ways and that starts to slow the whole IT department down and then the whole company.

Toyota has found a way around this problem that we can all learn from. They’ve come up with innovative ways to keep their IT employees constantly thinking about how the company can reach out and get new customers, enter new market segments, enter new geographic regions. Additionally, employees are challenged to consider better ways for the company to go after competitors, as well as how to create new ideas and come up with new and better practices.

How does Toyota accomplish all of this? One way is that they set nearly unattainable goals for the company. These goals are what push the company to overcome its existing routines and achieve new levels of performance. One such goal is stated as delivering “a full line in every market”. This is nearly impossible for Toyota (or any car company) to do, but it does a great job of making all employees feel as though they are working together to achieve a common goal.

Toyota’s goals are vague – on purpose. Goals like “create a cleaner car” don’t have clear, nailed-down requirements. By doing this Toyota ensures that employees won’t be able to look at a goal and say to themselves “that goal doesn’t apply to me”. Instead, vague goals result in multiple departments ending up working together in order try to achieve the goals.

What’s interesting about Toyota’s cars which are sold globally is that they aren’t modified to meet local needs. Instead, Toyota takes the time to customize its products to meet the level of consumer sophistication that is found in each country.

IT needs to adopt this way of thinking: how can we modify the way a user interacts with an application to reflect what department they are in? Finance may need sophisticated reporting tools, but sales probably does not.

One of Toyota’s greatest strengths is that it has built a culture in which there is an eagerness to take risks. This excitement about trying new ways to accomplish tasks is what allows Toyota to overcome those things that are blocking it from achieving its almost impossible goals.

Unlike so many other companies, Toyota is not constantly “betting the farm” on massive new projects. Instead, they have adopted a process by which they come up with big plans that they then go about implementing by taking a series of small steps.

This approach coupled with a philosophy of never giving up has allowed Toyota to be successful. When Toyota was developing an environmentally friendly car, they had a lot of failures – engines wouldn’t start, batteries died, etc. However, they never gave up and the Prius was eventually created. Even this car is not the final result, but is rather a stepping stone towards where Toyota wants to get to.

Toyota’s embrace of experimentation has not been done willy-nilly. Rather, they have a structured process called Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) that is baked into their business processes. What makes Toyota different is that employees are encouraged to speak up when something fails or when they run into a unsolvable problem. Toyota’s culture of open communication has a great deal to teach all IT departments.

Does your IT department encourage employees to try new approaches to problem solving? Have you created an environment in which employees feel free to speak up when they run into a problem that they can’t solve? Do you consider your goals to be achievable or impossible? Is this a good thing? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.

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