Which book has had the most impact on me, as a lean practitioner?

23 October 2023

Arnout Orelio

As many of you already know, in my daily work I am inspired by companies, such as Toyota, and the management philosophy they developed, and was popularized by the name: ‘Lean’. Learning from companies like Toyota is like peeling an onion. Each time you hit a new layer. The closer to the core the more it is about people and their leadership and less about methods and techniques (the “tools”).

The book that has had the most impact on me in this regard is ‘The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership‘ * by Jeffrey Liker and Gary Convis. “Interesting, but why is that?”, you might ask.

Background “The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership”

At the time of writing this book, Jeffrey Liker was a professor at the University of Michigan, who is now retired from the university, but still writing many great books, even “comic” books.

He has done very extensive research, at and with Toyota, on how Toyota works. His first book on the subject, “The Toyota Way” (2000), is an international bestseller and required reading for anyone looking to improve their performance over the long term. He has since published a dozen books. All with a complementary perspective on Toyota.

The co-author, Gary Convis is former President and CEO of Dana Holding Corporation, a global player in the automotive  industry. Prior to that, he held several leadership positions, as manager and (vice)president at Toyota plants in the U.S.

The combination of a professor and a man from the practice of leadership at Toyota, works out very well in the book. As a result, the book is both comprehensive, thoughtful and substantiated as well as lively and inspiring through its many stories and examples.

Leadership development

What is special about the book is that, unlike most lean books, it is not about the methodologies and not about how great lean is. The book mainly describes the huge investment Toyota is making in its people and their leadership. Leadership development, it turns out, is Toyota’s “secret weapon” and the engine that drives and fosters the culture in which continuous improvement and learning occur. This was also why the book had such an impact. It completely changed my ideas about what it takes to become and remain an excellent organization.

“We build people, before we build cars”

One of Toyota’s slogans is “Building people, before building cars,” or in other words before we build cars for our customers, we train our people so that they give the best possible performance. It is similar to the theater where the actors first prepare very extensively and do a dress rehearsal before taking the stage in front of paying audiences. The book shows that it is not just a slogan but an actual, elaborated and applied strategy, deployed at every level of the organization.

The way they develop leadership is very different than in most organizations. In traditional organization, you select leaders on what they can already do, their previous performance. Leadership training then consists mainly of courses, lectures and conferences. In their daily work, they then receive virtually no guidance and everyone develops their own way of managing and leading. This seems fine because, after all, it’s all about results. At most organizations, how you get there is less important.

Not at Toyota. At Toyota, people grow to the next level in their development, based on their potential as leaders. They get their position based on what they still have to learn. The leadership development process is directly linked to the improvement process. Toyota develops leadership by having people solve larger and larger, more complex problems, under the guidance of a coach.

This coach primarily monitors how people approach problems, based on the company’s values:

  • Challenge.
  • Engage in your own fact-finding at the actual place, for greater understanding (Genchi Genbutsu).
  • Improve continuously (Kaizen).
  • Work together as a team
  • Respect people, especially those who do the work.

Leadership development process

For a long time the lean community, including me, has thought that there is a roadmap for a lean transformation, where you implement the various tools in a certain order. From this book you learn that there is no such methodology-based roadmap, but rather a leadership development process. Depending on the stage of the process and the problem being solved, the methods and techniques are used.

Liker and Convis explain that this leadership development process has four phases that are repeated over and over again, by each leader at each level. The improvement cycle for the leader you might say.

The four phases they identify are:

  1. Commitment to self-development,
  2. Learning to develop others,
  3. Supporting continuous improvement
  4. Creating a shared vision, goals and plans and linking them to improvement process.

During each of the cycles, the (budding) leader is assessed and provided with feedback based on results, the process followed, living by the values, his/her development and the development of the people he/she leads.

Toyota competes by learning and improving faster than others. They do this by developing leadership based on real everyday problems. This increases the ability of the organization, to keep getting better and sustain the results. As long as you keep developing everyone and continuously improving for your customers, then “no one” can catch up with you, as Toyota proves.

Leadership development: behaviors and mindset

Because of these insights, I have changed the words I use to describe a lean transformation. Where I used to talk about lean as an improvement approach with methods and techniques, I now mainly talk about leadership development, behavior and mindset. As a result, my role has also changed and become clearer: developing people’s leadership by teaching them to develop themselves and others and solve (ever larger) problems, creating a culture of continuous improvement and learning.

I have therefore begun to use Toyota’s five values as a guide in my coaching. With this I hope to achieve firstly that improvements are worked on in a sustainable, effective and respectful way and secondly, in this way I want to influence people’s leadership, through leading by example.

Should you, as a result of this blog, plan to read the book yourself, here’s a warning:

The book is definitely not for beginners. It requires knowledge of lean, your own experiences with it’s application and a lot of imagination, because the examples come from the automotive industry and not everyone has experience with that.

FYI – Jeffrey Liker has written a follow-up with George Trachillis of the Lean Leadership Institute, where I am a partner: ‘Developing lean leaders at all levels. A practical guide‘ *. This book tells in concrete steps and examples how to apply the lessons from ‘The Toyota way to lean leadership’, using the four phases.

As a “beginner,” focus on learning the basics, first.

I am happy to help you get started, based on your specific situation.


* As Amazon Associate, I earn from qualified purchases.


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