Isao Yoshino’s 40 years of leadership at the Toyota Motor Corporation helped define a specific corporate culture, now understood as the “Toyota Way.” Author Katie Anderson tracks Yoshino’s career as she explains this all-encompassing philosophy, which is based on three concepts. The first is a larger vision, called kaizen, which includes continuous improvement, change and innovation. The second is genchi genbutsu, the concept of basing important decisions on facts from original sources. The third concept is the most crucial idea in Yoshino’s approach to leadership and learning: hansei, critical self-awareness in business and in life.
- Begin with a larger dream.
- A career starts with a purpose and a determined plan.
- Patience is a virtue, as is dogged persistence.
- Leaders need to communicate a sense of purpose and create circumstances in which people can excel.
- Leaders should make an extra effort to help others learn and show them they care.
- Leaders help others evolve.
- Sometimes leaders fail, but they must learn from their failures.
- Reflection is crucial for learning and wisdom – but it isn’t easy.
Begin with a larger dream.
Toyota Motor Corporation leader Isao Yoshino was born in Japan just after the Second World War. He grew up in an extremely insular rural setting. Few foreigners ever came to villages like his, and most of the people he knew had never been to another country. One day, young Yoshino met a kind American soldier who inspired his dream to go to the United States and to see the world beyond Japan’s shores.
“Having that dream – like the North Star – in the corner of your mind is so important. Even if you don’t take it out that often, it will guide you.” (Isao Yoshino)
Yoshino took two initial steps toward his American dream: learning English and listening to American military radio, but by the time he became a student at Osaka University, his objectives had expanded. He didn’t want to spend time only in the United States. He wanted to experience different cultures all over the world.
After graduation, Yoshino joined Toyota. In a way, this choice was a gamble. He was betting that Toyota would eventually expand overseas, thus allowing him to travel and experience other cultures as part of his work. At the same time, Yoshino developed an additional core goal: To help people evolve. In a word, he wanted to lead.
A career starts with a purpose and a determined plan.
Once you have a dream, formulate it as a concrete goal or purpose you can pursue systematically.
At Toyota, Yoshino realized that the best way to pursue his American and international dream was to develop advanced skills in English. He aspired to pass the National English Proficiency exam, which Toyota and other companies required for international assignments. While studying in the library, he noted that international trade publications deployed specialized language. Yoshino thus realized that mastering vernacular American English was insufficient for achieving his goals; he needed to master business English. Because he defined his goal sharply, Yoshino was able to remain focused on it.
“A dream can be far-off, a blurry vision, or some kind of vague idea, but if you think of it often, then you can get a more concrete image. It becomes a clearer goal.” (Isao Yoshino)
Yoshino went after his objectives in innovative ways. Even as he pursued his aspirations, he found that he wanted to help others with their goals, to share the knowledge he had gained and to expand the scope of his relationships. So he formed an English language study group and invited engineers and other colleagues to join. This experience affirmed the joy he felt when helping people. He also developed relationships with co-workers whom he otherwise wouldn’t have met.
Patience is a virtue, as is dogged persistence.
People seldom realize their dreams and goals quickly or without setbacks. Yoshino spent the 1970s holding various Toyota jobs in and around Tokyo, as well as raising a family. By the early 1980s, Toyota was expanding internationally, and Yoshino’s dreams seemed within his grasp. When Toyota and General Motors formed a California-based joint venture, Toyota was on the verge of transferring Yoshino to Los Angeles. However, senior executives decided they needed him to stay in Japan to set up international training programs.
“Persistence, patience and focus can lead us to our long-held dreams and color our lives with unexpected meaning along the way.”
As it turned out, Yoshino continued to be based at home, but he traveled all over the world for short periods. In 1986, after a 20-year wait, Toyota sent him to run its office in San Francisco. Yoshino had been single-minded and persistent. Though he suffered setbacks, and his dream took a long time to come to fruition, he never diverted from his purpose.
Yoshino continued to develop his vocation as a leader who helps others. He continued to evolve. Once he completed his stint in San Francisco and returned to Japan, Yoshino realized he still wanted to work abroad and expand his horizons.
Leaders need to communicate a sense of purpose and create circumstances in which people can excel.
Most employee orientation programs at North American or European companies are short and cursory. They typically last less than a week; often they’re as short as an afternoon. Human resources departments conduct most orientations sessions, focusing on company policies, procedures and benefits.
By contrast, when Yoshino started working for Toyota in 1966, the orientation program was intensive and exhaustive; it lasted more than four months. Even office employees such as Yoshino received training in shop-floor manufacturing processes.
“The objective of the shop-floor portion of the orientation was very specific and intentional: start with defining purpose and teach it through direct experience.”
The company educated new employees about its purpose, which was to make good products. It also introduced new employees to its overall corporate culture. Toyota works to teach employees to carry out its mission. To support that goal, the company expects leaders to create a context in which employees can succeed. This includes nurturing an atmosphere in which people don’t fear making mistakes and can learn from their inevitable errors.
Yoshino’s early experience with Toyota’s orientation system taught him how the corporation manufactures its cars and inspired him to become a “people-oriented” leader. In his eyes, the leader’s task wasn’t only to enable car manufacturing and sales, but also to transform people. Toyota’s orientation shaped Yoshino’s concept of how to “lead and learn.”
Leaders should make an extra effort to help others learn and show them they care.
Leaders can promote employee development without making big formal gestures. Instead, take small actions that demonstrate concern. Leaders should provide employees with in-depth feedback they can use to shape their actions. Yoshino’s early managers and mentors discussed his performance evaluations with him in detail, pointing out his strengths and weaknesses.
“Leader is more than a job title – it’s a way of being.”
In addition, Yoshino’s early experiences at Toyota taught him the value of creating a “chain of learning” across the entire company. This strategy encourages learning and development activities that cut across traditional silos.
One of the basic underlying principles of the Toyota Way is genchi genbutsu or “go to gemba,” which means, “go to the source.” People-oriented leaders go to the source for the facts they need to make good decisions. That may call for getting out of the office and going to the factory floor to talk to workers, or meeting with clients and other involved participants.
The practice and the philosophy of going to the source for facts are crucial for leaders who want to be learners. Only learning leaders really know what’s happening within their organizations. When leaders go to the locations where employees work and listen to them, they learn about their employees’ day-to-day lives firsthand. Showing up demonstrates that the leader values and respects the employees.
Leaders help others evolve.
Yoshino learned to be a leader and developed a philosophy that enables both leaders and employees to learn and grow.
In the mid-1970s, Toyota faced declining sales and problems with manufacturing quality. While the era’s economic woes may have been external, Toyota’s senior management decided that part of its corporate problem was that its managers were losing sight of their real priorities. Toyota needed to retrain them, so they could relearn how to lead. The consequent training program emphasized core managerial abilities. For example, trainers taught managers to clarify and rank their goals and to align them properly with the actions that had to happen to bring them to fruition.
“My role as a leader was to help others develop themselves.” (Isao Yoshino)
If you have too many goals, your plan will become unfocused – and that will prevent you from aligning your objectives with related, concrete actions. During the management retraining process, Yoshino learned that to be effective, leaders had to practice the development program’s tenet that leadership is a continuous way of thinking, not just a set of individual insights.
In 1991, when Yoshino returned to Japan from the United States to lead a human resources office, he codified his leadership philosophy explicitly in the form of a “credo.” Though he wrote it more than 30 years ago, Yoshino believes its principles remain applicable today. It calls for maintaining an inquisitive mind, trying to grasp the true nature of situations, engaging in regular communication with employees, providing productive criticism and maintaining a positive attitude, even in difficult circumstances.
Sometimes leaders fail, but they must learn from their failures.
Toyota launched a boat business in the United States in 1990. Though Yoshino had little knowledge of or even interest in boating, in 1992 Toyota assigned him to its Marine Business Preparation Department in Japan. His job was to supervise the groups that were launching a line of luxury yachts in the Japanese market.
While living in the United States, Yoshino observed a large demand for water-ski boats. He proposed launching a water-ski boat line specifically for the American market. In 1994, Yoshino gathered a small, informal team, including two young engineers, to explore the idea. They developed a detailed plan for Toyota Marine Sports in the United States.
“Yoshino’s unplanned idea…set into motion a renewed perseverance to return to the United States to pursue what would be [his] biggest project – and the biggest failure – of his entire career.”
By the end of 1996, Toyota senior management approved Yoshino’s American water-ski-boat business. He began working with an American division of Toyota and established manufacturing facilities in Orlando, Florida.
From the beginning, tension between Toyota and its American counterparts created problems for the project. The people at the Orlando factory lacked the training or mentality of their counterparts in Japan.
Yoshino attempted to resolve the situation by sending in a “kaizen coach,” but the kaizen method of overall quality planning didn’t take hold. By 2001, Toyota’s senior management decided to get out of the American boat business altogether and close the Orlando plant. Yoshino’s venture cost Toyota some $13 million.
Still, Yoshino insists that a failure isn’t a true failure if you learn something you wouldn’t otherwise have learned. Indeed, he feels grateful for all he learned through this failure, and he appreciates that he had the opportunity to launch a new venture. Yoshino believes his main leadership errors, in that circumstance, were that he did not follow Toyota’s processes rigorously and attempted shortcuts under the pressure of the moment.
Reflection is crucial for learning and wisdom – but it isn’t easy.
You can undertake reflection or hansei alone, but your insights are often deeper when you work with other people.
“Bad news comes after good news. Good news comes after bad news. Don’t worry about it. Neither good or bad will last long. That is life.” (Isao Yoshino)
Yoshino found that his perspective that both good and bad news are transitory held true during the lengthy interviews conducted for this book. He reflected on difficult topics, such as the failure of the US boat business, from a new, illuminating perspective. Whether you think about success or failure, reflection enables you to learn from your experiences, so you can modify what you do in the future.
However, gaining perspective can be difficult. Sometimes people find their own success so thrilling they fail to identify its true sources and don’t learn anything new for the future. Leaders must always continue learning from their experiences. Keep asking questions. Pay attention to what other people say. Don’t get impetuous or impatient. With the right attitude, you can learn from any experience and anyone you encounter.
About the Author
Katie Anderson is a leadership coach, Lean practitioner, consultant and professional speaker.
“Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn: Lessons from Toyota Leader Isao Yoshino on a Lifetime of Continuous Learning” by Katie Anderson is an insightful and thought-provoking book that offers a deep exploration of leadership principles and continuous learning through the lens of Isao Yoshino, a distinguished leader at Toyota. Anderson skillfully captures Yoshino’s wisdom and experiences, presenting them in a clear and engaging manner that resonates with both aspiring and seasoned leaders.
The book revolves around the central theme of continuous learning and its vital role in effective leadership. Anderson takes readers on a journey through Yoshino’s life, unfolding his remarkable career at Toyota and the valuable lessons he learned along the way. By sharing numerous anecdotes and personal stories, the author brings Yoshino’s experiences to life, making them relatable and applicable to a broader audience.
One of the book’s strengths is its emphasis on the importance of a learning mindset and the pursuit of personal growth. Yoshino’s unwavering commitment to continuous improvement serves as a powerful example for leaders in any field. Anderson skillfully weaves together Yoshino’s insights with her own reflections, providing a comprehensive framework for readers to adopt and incorporate into their own leadership journeys.
Anderson’s writing style is engaging and accessible, making the book suitable for readers of all backgrounds and levels of leadership experience. She strikes a balance between presenting Yoshino’s lessons and offering practical advice, ensuring that readers not only understand the concepts but can also apply them in real-world situations. The book is structured in a logical and coherent manner, with each chapter building upon the previous ones, guiding readers through a progressive learning experience.
Furthermore, “Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn” delves into the unique organizational culture of Toyota, known for its emphasis on continuous improvement, teamwork, and respect for people. Through Yoshino’s stories, readers gain valuable insights into the inner workings of Toyota, including its problem-solving methodologies such as the Toyota Production System, and how these principles can be adapted and implemented in different contexts.
While the book primarily focuses on Yoshino’s experiences, Anderson also incorporates interviews and perspectives from other leaders who have worked with or been influenced by him. This multi-dimensional approach adds depth and richness to the narrative, providing a broader perspective on the impact of Yoshino’s leadership and teachings.
If there’s one minor criticism, it would be that some readers may have preferred a more detailed exploration of specific leadership techniques or case studies. However, the book’s primary focus on Yoshino’s personal journey and overarching leadership principles still offers valuable insights that can be applied across various industries and leadership roles.
In conclusion, “Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn: Lessons from Toyota Leader Isao Yoshino on a Lifetime of Continuous Learning” is a compelling and enlightening book that offers a wealth of knowledge and inspiration for anyone interested in leadership development and continuous improvement. Katie Anderson’s skillful storytelling combined with Isao Yoshino’s invaluable wisdom make this book a valuable resource for leaders seeking to enhance their own leadership capabilities and create lasting positive change within their organizations.