Improvement Insights Blog
When Did Your Light Switch Turn On?
John, a senior executive with a large lumber company, went to Japan with 30 other leaders for 30 days. They struggled to connect what they were seeing in Japanese manufacturing plants until one day toward the end of the trip. Here’s what happened:
“This summer my wife and I took a river cruise that we booked for 2021 (but of course, that didn’t happen). They had these community tables where you’d sit around for lunch. One day we’re sitting with another couple of couples and somehow we got on the subject of “What do you do?” I said “Six Sigma,” and one of the guys at the table just lit up. He said, “Oh man, we took this this 30-day adventure in Japan, going to all of the manufacturing plants and whatever.”
“Well, it turned out John worked for a very large lumber and forestry company, and they had huge clients in Japan. The Japanese are very picky about the quality of their products so they invited them to come over. He said about 30 senior [employees] (not the top management, the senior folks) went over and spent 30 days in Japan, and every day they’d go to a different manufacturing plant and look at how everything was going. Then they’d come back at night and he said they’d spend four or five hours discussing what they’d seen.
“The thing was, this went on and on but they still didn’t quite get it… still didn’t quite get it, he said. And then one day they went to some HP subsidiary that had Americans and Japanese there, and all of a sudden he said ‘the light switch went on,’ that was his phrase. You could tell when the light switch went on that people just ‘got it’ all of a sudden just like whammo! He said, “We came back and we talked for hours that night, and then everything else we’d seen started to make sense. Then we went to other plants and we were picking up all these great things. “We came back and told Senior Management ‘We’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do this.’”
And so they did. It took them about three years for the total culture change and they lost about 20 percent of their leaders and managers because “We don’t want to do any of this nonsense.” So expect your leadership team to leave or some other folks to leave; 20 percent attrition [is] kind of big.
“But anyway, the idea here is they completely changed how they were doing business, and started manufacturing better products and shipping them everywhere, and guess what? They started stealing market share from everyone else. Right? Because their products were better.
“I want you to get this idea that that was transformational for them.
“Now, I worked in the phone company (US West), and they went on a three-week tour over there. They went to all the manufacturing plants, looked at everything, came back and had no religion: their switch did not flick on and it did not take root, really, in the phone company. Eventually they shut down the Quality Department. So let’s not all pretend that going to Japan is going to magically transform your way of thinking. In this case, it did, and magically transformed their company.
“I know you can’t go to Japan, but hey… if you get a chance to talk to somebody who has, maybe you’ll discover something. I spent about an hour [talking to John]. I’m going to do a few more videos about that discussion we had, but let’s go out and improve something this week.
“Let’s create hassle-free healthcare, a hassle-free America. Let’s go out and improve something this week.”