Are you going to change your mind?

Lessons from Toyota’s continuous improvement culture.

About the author:

Dr. Keivan Zokaei is a lean thinker, consultant and a published author. Keivan regularly advises C-suite executives at global companies and has led transformation projects in Service, FMCG and Manufacturing industries working with organisations such as ASSA ABLOY, Welsh Water, Wartsila, Unilever, Marks & Spencer, TESCO, WalMart, MARS, Sainsbury’s, Scottish Government, and Imperial Tobacco. Keivan was also an advisor to the Auditor General in Wales on how to cut costs and improve public services as well as publishing several key reports commissioned by various European governments or industrial bodies.



We all know that success and happiness are just a mindset. But how do we change our mindset to attain happiness or success? Let me recount a story from a visit to Toyota in Japan, where many go every year to attain new slivers of wisdom.

More than 20 years ago, a young Mr. Eiriasu[i] walked into the office of the chairman of the board at Gifu Auto Body Co., his key customer and one of the main Toyota car manufacturing plants inside Japan, only to declare himself bankrupt. Mr. Eiriasu company, which I visited earlier this year, is a small labour-intensive metal bashing operation that under normal circumstances would not survive in a high labour cost economy like Japan. At the time when he entered the chairman’s office, the company was owned by his father and Mr. Eiriasu himself was in the administrative functions with an accounting background. He was still a young man and was hoping to get a second career in another company as an accountant or administrator. A career change which is certainly not easy in the Japanese culture.

However, to his astonishment the chairman offers him an alternative. “Are you ready to give us one year of your life?” asks the chairman. The deal is for Mr. Eiriasu to become an ‘apprentice’ inside Toyota for one year until he is well-versed in both technical and cultural aspects of Toyota Production System (TPS), while a seasoned Toyota sensei (or lean expert) takes over his company and builds its people and processes up to TPS standards. It’s a win-win and Mr. Eiriasu does not hesitate to say yes. Interestingly, Mr. Eiriasu, with his accounting background, has no real knowledge of operations. In fact, that’s why he has been chosen!

So, his apprenticeship begins with Toyota. But, first, he must go through Toyota’s “change your mind” training. You have to clear your mind and soul before you can grasp the teachings, exactly like what a monk does. Unlearn before you learn! During the first week of his apprenticeship, he must lock himself up in a room with only a single book to read. And the book is not even about Toyota Production System or any other aspect of work. Instead a historical book about a samurai who lost his honour and must find a way to restore it. And not even a bestseller!

At Toyota, usually this type of training takes place at some remote training centre on the skirts of Mount Fuji; though not in Mr. Eiriasu’s case. The idea is to be away from work and day-to-day life. No phone, no TV and no computers. You go out of your room only for meals or in the evening when according to a Japanese custom you bathe before going to bed. The idea is that when you come out of the room, at the end of the week, you are much more receptive to take in new knowledge and to accept change, told me a Toyota Sensei. It’s like a person who has been fasting or dieting and when they eat again everything tastes much better. You start over with a clean sheet.

After the first week, when Mr. Eiriasu started learning about the process and people aspects of TPS, he was ready to soak up all the knowledge he could obtain, even if sometimes it seemed counterintuitive. His subsequent training was, nearly always, in the actual workplace (or Gemba). For Mr. Eiriasu, or other people who go through “change your mind” training, being locked up for several days, sorts out irrelevant thoughts. So instead of putting up barriers for not taking action or coming up with excuses, they become stronger in believing that change is inevitable and that it is necessary to move forward. This is the power of intense reflection. This Toyota method can completely change the individual’s mindset by rebuilding it from the ground up, or bringing about a dramatic new awareness that was not there before.

Today, more than couple decades on, Mr. Eiriasu is a humble but lively manager who takes much pride in explaining his achievements: zero time lost to injuries, short lead times enabled through lots of quick changeovers, a simple yet effective Kanban system, and many more TPS features as you would expect from a Toyota supplier. But most importantly he is the first person to admit that there is no straight jacket in TPS; according to him you just deploy whatever tools suit you.

Those whom want to stick to their old mindsets will never be able to attain such wisdom. True change of mindset is possible through intense reflection, such as the one Toyota provides to its change agents. To come face-to-face with your inner thoughts and to surface all resistance to change.

Reflection and facing the reality, however harsh it may be, are at the root of the Toyota way. In fact, as this article tells us, a good translation for the well-known concept of Kaizen is not “continuous improvement” but rather “continuous critical self-development”. Kaizen is a process in our own mind of tapping into our inner strengths and our innate potentials to push the envelope. It is through continuous critical self-reflection that we attain continuous improvement, at any level or in any organisation. And it is critical self-reflection that brings about change of mindset.


[i] Out of respect real names have not been used. Instead an alias is used.