What does a Prius have in common with Gore-Tex? At first glance, nothing. But a deeper look into the company cultures behind each product reveals something rather unique: They're both made by companies that let associates "dig" their own job.
Toyota Motor Corporation, maker of the Prius, and W. L. Gore, the maker of Gore-Tex, both take a hands-off approach when it comes to defining "work," choosing instead to take a more subtractive approach by allowing individuals to sculpt their own job, matching talent to task. (Gore, as you may be aware, does not grant job titles.) In both companies, it may take months for someone to find their niche. And that's just the beginning—they then must establish their credibility by producing valuable, unique ideas.
And there's a bit more, as it turns out.
They both believe in the power of teams and detest rigid hierarchy. At Toyota, the typical multi-level factory hierarchy and hundred-plus job descriptions have been replaced by a flattened team structure, simply team members and team leaders. Team members are cross-trained and may shift jobs as frequently as every two hours. At Gore, there are no bosses or supervisors or managers, only sponsors and mentors. The individual commitment is to the team.
But how does job sculpting (or digging) play out for the individual involved? Another case from Toyota—this one of Thornton "Thor" Oxnard—sheds some light.
Thor arrived in 1992 from the United States at Toyota's corporate headquarters in Nagoya, Japan, with an MBA in one hand and an MA in Japanese studies in the other, eager to put both to good use. He was promptly assigned to a month-long tour of duty in the factory, working on the assembly line. Immediately oriented to the ways of the Toyota Production System, he emerged with a basic knowledge of standardized work and lean manufacturing and was transferred to the Overseas Parts Division.
His assignment: Supply Analyst, processing overseas parts orders.
Feeling underutilized and somewhat disappointed, Thor performed his tasks as assigned, waiting patiently for his responsibilities to be increased. A month came and went without a change.
Knowing he was capable of much more, he approached his manager to request more work, and sat back to wait patiently to be told what to do. Alas, the orders never came. Thor repeated his plea, but to no avail.
Finally, on his third attempt, Thor's manager explained simply that Toyota had exposed him to the principles of the Toyota system and given him a small starting assignment, but that it was up to him to determine the rest. "You must tell me what needs to be done," said his manager. "You must dig your own job."
Thor was shocked, since telling a Toyota manager what needs to be done was the opposite of what he had expected. Excited by the opportunity to create his own job, any of Thor's initial doubt posed by a lack of clear direction quickly faded as he embarked on his search for work.
But Thor quickly realized that this would be no easy challenge. How would he figure out what needed to be done? Would it fit with his knowledge and skill? Would it add value to the organization? Would it be accepted by his manager?
He set about the task of talking to everyone he could. In the course of his exploration, he came to know the operation better. He came to see the bigger picture of how the various processes and departments worked together. He began to understand where his expertise might be best used.
Finally, Thor uncovered a problem. A contentious relationship existed between Toyota and General Motors with respect to the supply of parts to then-joint Toyota/GM operations in the U.S. Upon further investigation, Thor found that the source of the contention was the lack of a supply contract.
To solve this problem, Thor began to ask why: Why was there no contract? Answer: Toyota and GM couldn't agree to terms, so there was no basis for a contract. Why couldn't they agree? Why had the issue of operating without a contract suddenly become so important? Thor realized that the situation could present a real obstacle to Toyota's new parts distribution strategy.
Soon, he discovered that much of the disagreement centered on misunderstandings regarding Toyota policies, such as parts pricing. Thor found by talking to others that, in general, Toyota had never really explained the rationale behind their policies regarding the supply of parts. For example, Toyota would not negotiate parts pricing, much to the consternation of GM. Why no negotiation? By talking to both parties using his bilingual skill, Thor quickly came to the conclusion that the root of the problem was to be found in the general lack of communication between Toyota and GM—communication that was not occurring because neither party knew how to explain their position!
Thor had found his job: act as the liaison and interpreter to both parties and facilitate a contractual agreement.
He immediately explained to GM that Toyota was bound to maintain price parity between what they supplied GM and what they supplied their Toyota-only operations. Therefore, Toyota would not, could not, negotiate. Further, GM didn't have to worry that prices would be raised indiscriminately: Toyota was bound by their U.S. operations to set reasonable, market-based prices. A contract was swiftly developed and agreed to by both parties.
Through the course of digging his own job, Thor Oxnard came to understand what real-world, frontline operational innovation is all about: exploring, finding, and solving an important problem hands-on, down where the action is.
Ten years later, Thor would play a pivotal role in one of Toyota's most ambitious supply-chain management initiatives, becoming a key strategic planning executive for Toyota's U.S.-based North American Parts Organization, a nearly $3 billion operating division supplying parts to all Toyota, Lexus, and Scion dealerships.
Lesson: when you remove just the right thing in just the right way, good things
happen. Removing the usual "job roles and responsibilities" from Toyota's equation forced Thor to dig his own job. That constraint—not having a clear direction—forced his resourcefulness. And the laws of subtraction dictate that creativity thrives under intelligent constraints.
Matthew E. May is author of The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything (McGraw-Hill, October 26, 2012). He also advises Toyota in the U.S. on innovation strategy and design thinking.
[ Image: Flickr user Sinclair Lewis]