Developing Leaders the Toyota Way

Its commitment to its employees is long-term

By Charles Waldo

Organizations vary widely in their methods of identifying and raising leaders.  Some take the “Learn on the job, sink or swim” approach, where it’s up to  individuals to develop themselves.  At the opposite end of the development spectrum are those organizations which use long-term, elaborate processes that might even include several, fully-paid years off earning a graduate degree.  Generally, the larger the organization the more formalized the development process.

Where do you turn to for guidance on leader identification and development?  Fortunately (or confusingly) there are hundreds of “how to” books and magazines; thousands of independent trainers and coaches; zillions of seminars and training events; scores of universities; and so on. How do you select the leadership development method that is best?

One proven method is to identify organizations which have been highly successful over the long haul, the assumption being that to be successful they have had and do have effective leaders. Then find out what leader development methods they use and evaluate which your organization might adopt or adapt. Identifying long-term, successful organizations is not so hard, but getting “inside” them to discover their leadership development strategies can be another story.

Toyota is either #1 or #2, depending upon how measured, in worldwide car sales.  Toyota is pushing to be #1 in the U.S. with almost 2.5 million unit sales in 2016; directly employs about 136,000 associates in four U.S. final assembly plants and numerous parts supply plants; and is indirectly responsible for hundreds of thousands of other Americans employed by suppliers. Quality levels, especially as measured by J.D. Powers, are almost always at or very near the top of ratings charts. Toyota is surely doing something (or a lot) right.  But what and how does one find out what that is?

Fortunately, Toyota is very open about how it does The Toyota Way – its operating philosophy, culture, and strategies.  Dr. Jeffrey Liker, professor of management at the University of Michigan, has studied Toyota intensely since the early 1980s and, with co-authors, has published eight very detailed books about various aspects of Toyota, especially Toyota USA.   One such book is The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership: Achieving and Sustaining Excellence Through Leadership Development (2012, co-authored with Gary Convis, former Managing Director of Toyota USA). Here are a few key principles and practices.


Essentials of Toyota Way Leadership:

The actual and would-be Toyota leader must buy into the corporate visions of:

  1. Leading the way to the future of mobility, enriching lives around the world with the safest and most responsible ways of moving people;
  2. Through our commitment to quality, constant innovation, and respect for the planet, we aim to exceed customer expectations and be rewarded with a smile; and
  3. We will meet challenging goals by engaging the talent and passion of people, who believe there is always a better way.”

The stages of development of a Toyota leader:

  1. Buys-in to the above corporate vision and to what Toyota calls its “True North Values”:
    1. Accepts and searches for challenging work;
    2. Has a “kaizen” mind (seeks constant improvement);
    3. Adopts a “go see where the problem is” attitude (hands-on management);
    4. Embraces teamwork;
    5. Has a deep respect for humanity.
  2. Commits to continual self-development by living the True North values through repeated learning cycles (but always under the watchful eyes of a coach or “Sansei.”).
  3. Sees and challenges the potential in others through “self-development learning cycles.”
  4. Supports continuous, daily improvement through kaizen activities.

The most important specific skills for Toyota leadership:

  • Active listening to hear what people are really
  • Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each person.
  • Clearly defining problems and identifying the root cause(s).
  • Creatively identifying countermeasures.
  • Putting countermeasures into action with clear accountabilities.
  • Taking the time and energy for deep reflection and analysis of results and methods.
  • Working to identify further opportunitiesfor improvement.
  • Motivating and influencing people across the organization (even those with no direct authority) towards common objectives.

The tortoise as a growth role model

Toyota hires most employees with the mutual expectations they will be with the company for a long time; decades, not years. Therefore, investment in skills development is done slowly, carefully, and deeply. Promotions come only after an employee has proven time and time again that she knows and can do her job inside and out and adheres to The Toyota Way. “Fast tracking” at Toyota is not remotely anything like that of the typical U.S. firm.

For most of the past fifty years Toyota has grown slowly and steadily as a worldwide corporation. Certainly this is true in the U.S. with the first car rolling off its initial final assembly plant in Georgetown, KY in 1988.  Additional final assembly plants in Indiana, Mississippi and Texas came on stream over the next thirty years.  One new plant about every ten years. Long-term, steady, sustained, incremental growth is Toyota’s view of growth…..the “way of the tortoise.”    

The Sensei

Toyota believes the best way to learn how to best do a job (mastery) is to do it over and over again…but under the watchful eye of a person who, through years of experience, is a master of that job – a Sensei.   The Sensei’s role is not so much to instruct as to help the worker himself reflect deeply on how well he is doing against the standards of the job (and virtually all tasks and jobs have standards) and use his creativity to improve performance and raise the standard.    The Sensei is regarded and honored as a key leader at Toyota although you won’t find any of their names on a corporate executive org chart.

Toyota is a huge, very complex organization and, being Japanese, brings “unfamiliar” values and mores to its American operations. But they work hard at helping Americans understand the “why’s” of what they do as well as adapt some practices to the American way of doing things.

I have not done justice to either Toyota or the book but hope your appetite to learn much more deeply has been whetted.   It’s a “different” kind of company and will take a while to get even a basic understanding of The Toyota Way.   Please give it a shot and see what happens.   Good luck.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Charles Waldo, Ph.D. is Professor of Marketing (ret.) at Anderson University’s Falls School of Business.   He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..