Dave had just been appointed chief executive of a county council in, shall we say, the South of England.

He was an internal appointment.  He’d been a traditional director of finance, a safe pair of hands for a number of years but frankly not that inspiring.

If he hadn’t realised it himself, the leader of the council made it clear on day 1 that he was going to have to raise his game to meet his (the leader’s) aspirations.  It wasn’t wholly clear what those aspirations were except he’d worked in the private sector where things in his view were a whole heap better.

As it happens, a few days later the PA Dave had inherited was taking him through the incoming mail to steer him in the direction of things he ought to be doing.  She paused at an invitation from the local chamber of commerce to their annual leadership lecture.  It was, she suggested, a useful place to network with the great and the good from the county’s business community.

She didn’t bother to tell him who was giving the lecture so he was surprised on the night to find himself being addressed by the CEO of a motor components company with a not inconsiderable reputation for turning round this spin-off from the wreckage of the UK car industry.

Unexpectedly, he found himself inspired by a story of major achievement in an industry he’d thought dead and gone.  Despite the gap between making vehicle components and delivering public services he sensed there might be something in this that would allow the leader’s vague aspirations to be met.

Over drinks afterwards he asked the CEO where he should go to see this achievement at its best, fully expecting to be offered a tour of his own company.  Without hesitation, the CEO said “The Toyota plant in Derby”.

That wasn’t the answer he’d expected but to cut to the chase a trip was arranged and he spent the day in Derby being given an overview of the Toyota Production System and a look round the plant.

It took a while for the import of what he’d learned to sink in but when it did he had one of those “light bulb” moments when something clicks and the world is re-arranged for you forever.

The thing that did it was the famous (some said infamous) Toyota rule that anyone on the production line can stop it if they think there’s something wrong.

Like most of what had come out of Japan to improve work (beginning with Quality Circles) this was misinterpreted for a long time by those Brits who were aware of it – their reaction ranging from “It’s a con” through “They’re crazy” to “It’ll never work here.  The guys’ll be stopping the line all the time”.

Of course, what lay behind the headline was the philosophy of “Accept no errors.  Create no errors.  Pass no errors”.   The company expected the line to stop frequently when production of a new model was starting up and the system was learning. But it was hardly ever needed once production was flowing efficiently and effectively.

What Dave took from it was the empowerment and trust it implied, a million miles from the command-and-control and blame culture of British work.  And what’s more Toyota were doing this with people who’d come from traditional British industry and had a lot to unlearn.

Why couldn’t the same principle work in his council?

His first instinct was to employ experts to make the improvements needed.  But he’d been uneasy about the cost and perceptions of that.  At Toyota, everyone seemed to be an expert in improving their own work.  Now he realised what was needed was to provide people with the understanding and support to do that in the council.

What happened after that is another story, and a long one at that.  As he came to realise, and often said, “The good stuff is never easy”.

But it was that light bulb moment which was the first step on the never-ending journey of improvement.

Advertisements