The Toyota Effect — Utilizing Listening Techniques to Strengthen an Organization


Author’s Note: I have written this post in partnership with Toyota. The opinions that lie within are my own.

Taming the chaos of everyday work life can sometimes feel impossible. “Re-mastering” how we work is often indicated. Yet, to make forward progress we must pause to listen to the heartbeat of the organization —  then speak about its problems openly. What is impeding the completion of your mission? What is standing in the way? Are you deploying the needed changes to make that mission a reality?

In may cases, increased transparency can improve the strength of an organization’s processes. Ultimately, the success of this dynamic is dependent on one vital skill: listening.

In the examination rooms at the Harbor-UCLA eye clinic — an organization serving the under-served — time was a precious commodity that couldn’t be tamed. Backlogs of patients in dire need of surgical intervention were growing and doctors were spending more time in the hallways of the hospital sifting through paperwork, than with the patients requiring their help.

Patients were literally losing their sight, awaiting intervention. For many, it would seem that the help would arrive too late. (See the story here:

Harbor-UCLA partnered with Toyota to help them listen more closely to their own environment (and employees) to identify solutions. Toyota’s process, called the Toyota Production System (TPS), empowers employees who work in a specific environment to identify problems and quickly work towards solutions, so improvement is within their grasp.

In essence, employees can serve as the innovators — unlocking needed potential.

Developed in the 1940s, Toyota’s socio-technical system involves harnessing small, continuous improvements to shape high quality work. It works with what is already “right” within an organization — and involves employees to refine how the work is completed. It is a process that allows built foundations to be respected, yet allows for needed change. In my career, I began to notice that active listening often held the key to helping organizations improve. As a consultant, I was required to pay close attention to what was happening on a daily basis.

However it was vital that the organization also listened to their own environment. In this way, employees with their depth of expertise could help unlock untapped potential. I’ve found many organizations were already on board with this, listening to employees concerning both customers and processes — and acting swiftly regarding what they heard.

Those that didn’t place value on this knowledge base, would likely continue to struggle.

Listening to the pulse of your own environment is critical — including its daily processes and the ultimate effect upon the clients you serve. Does the way the work unfolds maximize talent or hand-cuff progress? Are obstacles being thrown in the path of employees attempting to contribute?

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Value an open, multi-functional conversation. There isn’t a single team that works in a vacuum. The quality of your work depends on the quality of communication among the teams that serve your clients, patients or customers. Ensure that the channels are wide-open.
  • Watch “hand-offs”. Delivery success often rests at the point where customers or processes move on or are served by another function. Examine how your team can make these transitions smoother. The strength of a relay rests on these moments.
  • LBWA. (Leadership by walking around) I’ve found that leadership can often inadvertently undermine progress once changes are instituted. The more leaders are removed from the work, the slower the progress & recovery. So — leaders must stay connected to employees and offer support.

Harbor-UCLA worked with Toyota and tamed time. They implemented simple, yet practical systems to help the clinic improve dramatically, allowing their dedicated staff to help more patients.

They made the commitment to listen to their own environment and improve.

With that, something precious has been saved.

Want to learn more about The Toyota Effect? Check out other videos in the Toyota Effect series here: The stories they tell are quite remarkable. Toyota works with all kinds of organizations, including non-profits — see the  TSSC site for more information.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is the Director of Organizational Development at Allied Talent.  Their new tool, The Alliance Diagnostic examines how organizational culture supports entrepreneurial thinking and career growth.

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