Huntsman Alumni Magazine

Fall 2009

Former Toyota executive shares tips on effective leadership.

Ritsuo Shingo

Ritsuo Shingo (Photo by Steve Eaton)

Ritsuo Shingo said it was a plant that taught him what he knows about operational excellence.

The plant, as Ritsuo describes it, isn’t something that grows in the ground but, instead, the kind that comes with a factory floor where new automobiles are created.

“The plant tells me what to do,” he said, explaining that by careful observation and extensive experience he has learned many of the principles he applies in the workplace.

Ritsuo, the former president of Toyota China and Hino Motors China, agreed to share with the Huntsman Alumni Magazine some of the insight he gained as he has come up through the ranks in Toyota to leadership positions. His own father, Shigeo Shingo, is considered by many as one of the most brilliant leaders in operational excellence who ever lived. And yet, Ritsuo said most of what he has learned came from his own experience, not from the direct teachings of his father. In fact, he said he’s only read one of his father’s books.

Here are four principles Ritsuo shared with the Huntsman Alumni Magazine:

  • He said that circumstances, industries and cultures present different challenges. It’s important to learn from experience and always be looking for ways to adopt and improve practices. Your work must also be connected to market realities. Making something efficiently is not enough if no one wants to buy what you make. “If you cannot sell your product, you cannot run the company,” he said.
  • Go to where the work is being done and observe firsthand what is happening. Within the world of operational excellence, they call this “gemba.” He said this can’t be done with a quick walkthrough of the plant or the place where the work is accomplished.
  • Listen to learn from the experiences others have had. He said this is not easy but very important to do. He describes it as listening, digesting and then saving what works for you.
  • “Show them your back.” Ritsuo said that leaders need to demonstrate by their example the practices they want to see observed. If a CEO advocates cutting costs but stays in a five-star hotel when he travels, that sends the wrong message about saving money. Ritsuo said he’ll often move to a different hotel if he thinks the cost of a room is too much once he arrives. “I often mentioned to the people in China, I don’t need any stars,” he said of those who would insist he stay in a four- or five-star hotel. “If you are asleep, you can’t see the stars; you are sleeping.”

Some may wonder why U.S. automakers don’t try harder to duplicate Toyota’s success. Ritsuo explained that really understanding the basic principles of operational excellence takes time, and one can only learn from experience how to effectively apply those concepts.

“Imagine you have received a lot of tools as a gift,” he said. “Okay, these are fine tools. Can you fix an automobile? Can you fix a refrigerator? It’s one thing to have the tools; knowing how to use them, that’s a different story.”