A Lesson From Toyota: Thanking Employees for Pointing Out Problems


Thanks to Lean Frontiers for sharing a story from Mike Hoseus on LinkedIn. Mike is, of course, co-author of the excellent book Toyota Culture: The Heart and Soul of the Toyota Way (written with Jeff Liker, who I just learned is retiring from the University of Michigan… more on that soon).

Lean Frontiers is offering up these “videos/audios” in a lead-up to the Lean People Development Summit, September 11-12 in Savannah, GA.

I hope to see you at their Lean Coaching Summit, being held in Austin this July, where I'll be attending as their guest.

Here is the story Mike told, with audio shared via YouTube (a transcript I had done follows below):

Hear Mike's story as part of the Lean Blog Audio podcast:


Mike Hoseus: …I tell this story, but it normally is the one that sticks with everybody, so I'm going to tell it again. I learned this the first week in the job at Toyota. I was sent to Japan to work on the line. They wanted me to have empathy.

They said, “You're going to work on the line because we want you to have empathy for the team leaders and team members that you're going to come back and lead. Even though group leaders don't work on the line, have you worked on the line for 30 days? We're going to build Camrys over there in once a minute, but don't expect to learn the whole job.”

I remember going over to Japan thinking, “How can I not learn a 60-second job in 30 days?” They must not know us Americans very well. I'm going to show them.” To end that story quick, they were right. I didn't learn the job in 30 days, but I was dying trying.

The first week, I was putting in fender liners on a Camry and shooting three screws, four bolts, three screws, four bolts, one after another. That was about 10 seconds of the 60 seconds, but that was my first weeks' assignment and getting pretty quick throughout the week.

All of a sudden, towards the end of the week, I'm popping those babies in and I slipped. My air tool slipped and I went out and I scratched the fender of the car.

It was a beautiful blue Camry, and I remember the white line, right across the…I'm thinking, “Shoot.” Nobody saw me do it…


Mike: …because I checked, right?


Mike: The coast was clear. They taught me to do what, if I have a problem. Pull andon.
I had a decision to make. My decision was, “I'm not going to pull it. I don't want them to know I screwed up. I'm trying to show them that Americans can do this.” Plus, personally, I don't want them to know I messed up. I don't want to put my job in jeopardy, so then I started finishing the rest of the job.

All of a sudden, my conscious started getting the better of me. HR had told me before I left it, I'd need to pull andon. I got there, the team leaders, the group leaders, but I still wasn't convinced. I was rationalizing, saying, “Well, it's not that bad of a scratch?”


Mike: “It looks bad from here, but it's the angle, I'm under the car. If the car's on the ground, who in the heck is going to be laying on the cement looking at that? I think it's going to be OK. On we go.”
[intelligible] to finish the car, I'm like, “Oh no, gosh, Mike.” I'm starting to get paranoid, thinking, “Do they have hidden cameras up here somewhere, something? I better go ahead and pull it.”

I pull the andon, and the team leader comes over and he tags the scratch to go to the paint hospital, and then he stands by me to watch me. He starts coaching me, two, three, four cars.

He teaches me, if I can put my other hand to brace that air tool while I'm shooting, even if I slip it will stay in the fender well and it won't go out into the fender. I was like, “That's a good kaizen. That's good problem-solving. I can do that.”

The rest of the two hour split, I did that and no more scratches. Problem solved. I'm feeling good. Every morning, there's a five-minute shutdown for the team leaders to have a safety talk, and every afternoon, there's a five-minute shutdown for the group leaders to have a quality talk with their 20, 25 people.

All week long, I'm drinking my coke and they're jabbering in Japanese. On I go and on they go because I don't know Japanese. That day, I'm doing the same thing, drinking my coke and they're jabbering in Japanese.

All of a sudden I hear, “Mike-san.” I look up, it's like, “Are you talking to me?” They weren't talking to me. They were talking about me but they weren't talking to me.


Mike: I started listening a little more, and a little bit later, I hear a “Scratchy.”


Mike: Well, I think I know what they're talking about. That translates pretty darn clearly, doesn't it? I can't believe they're talking about that. What happened to the respect and trust deal that we were taught? I thought we had the problem solved, now he's telling the whole group I screwed up. Thanks a lot, buddy. Now I see how it really is. Now what are they going to do?

With that, the bells and the whistles go off to call everybody back to the line and they start streaming back to the line, but they come right towards me and start shaking my hand and patting me on the back. I'm thinking, “What the heck is going on? Are they saying goodbye? What is this?”


Mike: I'm trying to talk, I'm trying to figure it out and they get somebody to take my place and they go get a translator. There were two or three of those in the plant for all of us. She comes over and talks to the group leader for a while, she comes back to me and she says, “Mike-san, they're wanting to thank you.”

I'm like, “What? Thank me for scratching the car?” “No, they're wanting to thank you for letting them know you scratched the car. They said, “There was a little defect under there that could've gotten past inspection and got to the customer. That would've been the worst case.”

“The most likely case is the inspector would've found it but they would've had to take time and effort to track it back and find where it came from. By you letting them know, neither of this happened and that's what they're thanking you for.”

I'm like, “Wow.” Some people say, “Well, did you go make more scratches then after that?” No, but what do you think I did the next time I had a problem? Pulled the andon.

Do you have that culture in your organization and what are we doing about it if you do not?

My Comments:

First off, the idea of empathy for those doing the work is really important. Sadly, I've seen leaders, at times, in manufacturing and in healthcare not have much empathy for those doing the work. That leads to blaming individuals for systemic problems, which doesn't lead to much improvement.

Think of Mike's scenario… would it be easy for someone to say “Mike screwed up.” Or, would better problem solving focus on the tool slipping and asking why it's possible for the tool to slip? I bet Mike isn't the only one who has had the tool slip.

That's why the response there was about coaching, not shaming and punishing him.

Does your organization, whether it's a factory, a software startup, or a hospital THANK people for pointing out problems? How much more quality improvement would take place if that were the culture in your organiation?

Thanks again to Mike Hoseus and Lean Frontiers for sharing that thought-provoking story.

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleReader Question: Why Did I Get Into Lean Healthcare?
Next articleA Prototype For My “Two-Bin Hand Sanitizer” Concept
Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Here are some comments from when I posted this video on LinkedIn:

    Annie B. Mabo B.
    Thank you for sharing this. I wish hospital in general can learn from this experience

    Barry Alexander
    It is unfortunately far easier to blame than to actually address root causes!

    Peet Wiid
    An excellent example of practical respect for people: respect for the final customer by not passing on the defect, respecting the line manager by using the andon, respecting the operator by not blaming but learning, respect by colleagues by thanking someone who made a mistake for helping to identify an improvement opportunity. Even respect for tools, process… You can’t hide respect.
    Thanks for posting.

  2. Very nice story. Direct application to improving safety in hospitals where often we don’t know if anything went wrong.

    Thank you


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.