Jess Orr on What She Learned by Leaving Toyota


Last week was our fifth annual KaiNexus User Conference (or “KaiNexicon” as we now call it).

One of our keynote speakers was Jess Orr, a former Toyota engineer who shared perspectives on what it was like to now lead continuous improvement in another company. Jess has previously presented three webinars for us at KaiNexus (see links at the end of the post) and she always has something insightful to say.

I took a lot of notes during her talk, so here are some of the highlights as I captured them.

Update: You can also view the full video of her talk here.

Leaving Toyota

Jess said it was very difficult to leave because:

“A lot of my identity was wrapped up in Toyota.”

Jess found that the challenge in going to another company was that “maintaining a culture of continuous improvement” (at Toyota) was “different than building” that culture someplace else.

She added that:

“Having a vision of what good looks like” doesn't necessarily mean you know how to get from here to there.

Learning Toyota

What was it like working at Toyota? “It was a well choreographed dance” and they did a good job of helping her understand what the company was about through their orientation training.

“Everyone was obsessed with Kaizen.”

Their Kaizen goal was “everybody a little better, every today.”

In their training, they taught Jess:

  • Toyota Production System (TPS) origins and tools”
  • Activities that illustrated one-piece flow
  • The culture — the values of continuous improvement and respect for people (The Toyota Way)
  • What Kaizen means (“good change”)

“Toyota doesn't just build cars… they build people.”

Problems are not a Negative

Jess shared the way that Toyota defines problems. There is an “Ideal State” (and “none of us are there”). Then, you look at the “Current State.”

The gap between Current and Ideal is the problem definition.

They also ask, “What's the target we're shooting for now? That might be short of ideal,” such as a 25% reduction in defects.

In fact, Jess proposed such a target for a project she was assigned to and her manager immediately said, “How about 50%?”

As she started the work, the manager asked, “Who's on your team?” as it wasn't expected she would work alone. Jess ended up leading an effort that reduced defects by 75%.

“It built my confidence and capability… I was hooked.”

Jess also added that she worked on “very difficult problems” as there was no longer any “low-hanging fruit.”

She reflected on how leaders were coaches who “never gave me the answer” since they were wanting her to “build critical thinking skills.”

Going to a New Company

Jess joined a company that was “ten years into their [Lean] journey.” She said she was “confident” and that she “would show them how it's done.”

“The lessons in humility were quick and relentless.”

Jess also saw situations where improvement led to backsliding in performance.

Her reflection was that “asking employees to participate [in improvement] is not the same as truly engaging hearts and minds.”

But, “things got better” after those “stumbles.”

3 Key Lessons

Jess shared three key lessons from her career and transition from Toyota to another company.

“1. Seek first to understand”

Jess talked about how being a “humble learner” requires a “deep understanding” of the “current situation,” including

  1. Paint points
  2. The people

Jess then looked back to Toyota a bit and said that Toyota “never knew the true financial impact” of improvements as the company “didn't focus on dollars.”

Back to her second point, she said that you have to “really get to know the people working in the process,” taking time to know more than their names. You need to learn things like:

  • Their motivations
  • Their skills
  • Their frustrations

“2. Our role is to facilitate, not to fix”

Jess advised the audience to “slow down and resist the urge to fix people's problems for them.” As I've heard other Toyota people say, she suggested that we “don't take away ownership” and “don't [inadvertantly] send a message of ‘I don't think you are capable of solving this problem.'”

She added that the word “facilitate” means “to make easy,” which is an interesting insight.

“3. Leverage continuous improvement as a way to build people”

Jess recommended that we focus on building people, not just fixing the problem (and not just fixing the business). She said facilitators should “not just do improvement with them, but also for them.”

When you build people and involve them, she said:

“Continuous improvement reveals hidden superstars.”

I've certainly seen that in my own work.

Jess said that people “might have skills, but uncertainty.” When you facilitate, you can help others “run the project” and serve as a coach rather than “running it for them.”


During the Q&A, I asked Jess if Toyota used A3s for every problem, or if some problems were small enough that it wasn't necessary to do a formal A3.

Jess said that Toyota used A3 “for complicated” problems, which is the same dynamic and approach that I've recommended and have also seen at Cleveland Clinic, as I blogged about yesterday.

She also talked about Toyota Kata as a “phenomenon” she saw at Toyota as a form of “controlled experimentation.” She said there were times when they took a “less formal approach” of “try and see if it works.”

She wrapped up by saying our goal should be to “develop a small army of problem solvers” where people are “making improvements without being asked.”

Thanks to Jess for sharing her experiences, insights, and reflections!

Jess Orr Webinar Links:

How to Use A3 Thinking in Everyday Life

A Deep Dive into A3 Thinking

Applying Strategy Deployment to Your Personal Goals

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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. I think that the three key lessons that Jess described are just the tip of the iceberg regarding employee improvement. All three of the key lessons deal with the motivations and desires of employees themselves. As a manager, I think it is key to figure out how to properly motivate your employees towards continuous improvement. Each employee could have drastically different ways of being motivated but it is up to the manager to find them. By focusing on the people, it helps foster an environment of further improvement. Thank you for posting these highlights of her Keynote speech – some very interesting pieces in there!

  2. Great point regarding just touching the tip of the iceburg. I gave a talk once linking employee involvement in continuous improvement to the three human motivators from Dan Pink’s book Drive – autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I believe that CI when done right helps to meet these needs.


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