My husband was out chatting with our neighbor the other day about some car issues we’ve been having with our newest vehicle. He pondered how unusual it is that this vehicle is acting up while our older Honda vehicles with lots of miles on them keep plugging along, with hardly a hiccup on the maintenance Richter scale. Our neighbor suggested this isn’t so odd. He started talking about the way that Honda vehicles are made. He said, in their factories, it’s a lot different from the standard American factory. In their factories, the managers and the workers talk to each other. They go out after work and discuss ways to improve and apply those changes at work. They through this exchange of ideas, and working together, make a different kind of product. That’s what we are seeing reflected in the performance of our cars.
This simple conversation got the wheels really spinning in my head. How sad, I first thought, that my neighbor thinks so lowly of our American corporate way. I’ve been working in Corporate America for over fifteen years now and I am proud to be part of it. But is there truth in some of the lessons he suggest we learn? How is it that we’ve come to have such a “us and them” mentality between the leadership and the workers in America? I think of a PBS documentary on Henry Ford I recently watched. The documentary recounted the rise and later decline of this great automobile manufacturing leader. The rise included his absolutely world changing invention that led to the creation of automobiles accessible to the entire population. The eventual decline, however, came on the heels of power and pride. Henry hired a very militant and aggressive man to run his factories and there were horrible stories that followed about abuses and battles between worker and manager. As the documentary puts it this regime ruled with “terror and fear.” Henry refused to listen to his son Edsel’s council to broaden his mind to think beyond the “Model T Days” and to embrace new market demands. These power and pride based struggles were later in Mr. Ford’s life. Eventually, age and politics of the era led to him succumbing to the modern day and more progressive way to a certain extent. All said, however, the story of the struggle is worth pondering. If this great man, the author and inventor of the modern car, could succomb, couldn’t we all? Perhaps the lesson to glean is that we should be intentionally on the watch out for letting bad practices seep into how we as leaders lead.
Now, back to my husband’s discourse with our neighbor. What my neighbor was reflecting on in fact is the Japanese methodology of Lean. Toyota is probably the most famous auto manufacturer that is an emblem of this way of thinking. Honda too has adopted similar approaches. The philosophy at the core is one wrapped around the notion of having harmony in all things. Harmony would propose that managers and workers can work together, without disputes and infighting. All can, if their internal philosophy is aligned, work their hardest for the betterment of the entire organization. The “us and them” mentality is a choice that does not have to be embraced. This leads to team wide brainstorming (in the lean world known as “Kaizen”), a culture of continous improvement and all hands on deck, and methods of order and excellence in all work standards. Some people say that the measure of whether this system is working is to visit the bathrooms of the workers and the executives. If both bathrooms are equally clean and equally nice, the system is likely in place. This is because even the little things matter. If I as your leader care about the environment where you go to use the bathroom facility, I probably care about other things too. If you as my employee care enough about the facility to keep it clean and orderly, you probably care about the overall well being of the company. Point being, boundaries are broken down and all work together, in harmony.
Automobile manufacturing aside, I think these stories and neighborhood conversation all speak to a simple human principle. Respect. If you lead with care for all, intrigue for the opinions of all, and truly believe all are equal, you are likely to have more engaged teams. Corporate powerhouses aside, I think this is at its core a very American tenet. All men and women are created equal. Period.
So, keep yourself in check. Don’t lead with power. Lead with heart. Listen, engage and apply because multiple minds are always better than one. There is no team in one leader! There is a mighty team when hearts and minds, across the teams, are all engaged and marching in one common direction.