Why is your ability to lead change a big deal? To answer this question, let’s turn the clock back. In 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith published the classic The Affluent Society, claiming, “We have solved the production problem.” Over the next 20 years, U.S. manufacturing from autos to steel set the global standard for innovation, productivity, and quality. U.S. industry was the envy of the world.
Then, in the late 1970s, Japanese manufacturers—e.g., Kawasaki, Nippon Steel, Sharp, and Toyota—entered the U.S. market. Powered by just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, these fierce rivals raised the bar in productivity and quality. They captured the heart, mind, and spending of U.S. consumers. One decade later, the Japanese-led JIT revolution had decimated the U.S. consumer electronics and steel industries. Automakers were on the brink of bankruptcy. The upper Midwest became known as the rust belt because so many jobs had been lost.
How did U.S. companies respond? By the early 1980s, analysts were busy reevaluating manufacturing practices, searching for the Japanese secret. Amazingly, Japanese companies like Toyota invited U.S. managers into their plants. They were happy to share their secrets, showing rivals exactly how they operated. At the end of one plant tour, a U.S. manager asked his Japanese tutor, “Why are you sharing all of this with us? Don’t you realize that we are going to go home and copy the things you are showing us?” How do you think the Japanese manager replied?
Here is the unexpected response: “It has taken us years and years to develop and implement this system. We do not believe that you have the patience and determination to make it work.” He was right. By the mid-1980s, JIT had become the rage. Everyone was adopting it—or at least trying. By the early 1990s, many companies were walking away from JIT. They simply couldn’t make it work. It would take another decade before U.S. companies figured out how to implement what we now call lean manufacturing.
The bottom line: Toyota learned early that lean success requires not only a long-term perspective, but also consistent, persistent change. In many ways, lean means change. That’s why you need to learn how to lead change!