Art Smalley: Nemawashi in Toyota

In this month’s question over on the Lean Edge Catherine Chabiron, Process Improvement (Lean Office) Manager at Faurecia asks the following – “Can we reduce nemawashi to lobbying ? Is nemawashi checking the relevance of a solution and enriching it with key field actors, or simply promoting / enforcing it?”

Here is my response:

Nemawashi (根回し) is one of those Japanese terms utilized in the Lean community that I am not very fond of to be honest. I run into far too many organizations throwing around this term or other Japanese words like “Hansei” or “Yokoten” or “Kamishibai” instead of using plain English (or whatever your native tongue happens to be) for communication. I realize there are times that a foreign word has no exact translation and is necessary for exact measures of communication. However equally often I run into instances where a cliquish type of language is used to create a sense of secrecy or inner circle of people “in the know”. The problem I have with this approach is that the goal of language is to communicate. It is a means to an end and if the end is not achieved then there is a problem with the method…So I prefer to use plain English as much as possible to eliminate confusion and to keep things simple. Although the term Nemawashi is somewhat tied to Japanese culture it can also be thought of as a form of a “prior consultation” or “laying the proper groundwork” for a meeting. In the spirit of answering the question I will use the word Nemawashi in this post, elaborate some more on the topic, and explain why I do not think it is “Lobbying”.

Nemawashi in Japanese directly translated means to “twist or go around the roots” of a tree in order to prepare it for planting. Here is one site with a simple description of the actual metaphor. It terms of meaning it refers to a practice of treating the roots of a tree carefully, digging around them and wrapping the roots up properly when planting or moving the tree in question. If proper care is not taken then the roots can be damaged and the tree in question might die. Ideas are like this as well in some respects. If you don’t take great care in communicating your ideas or plans then they can die as well. Or more importantly by the act of communicating in advance you might learn important things that will improve your idea and its chance for success. In this spirit the metaphor of Nemawashi is important but nothing all that mysterious. Toyota took this practice of Nemawashi seriously in terms of communication. When other parties are affected by your proposed idea, change in design, or change in policy etc. you were required to communicate this in advance with all parties affected for the purpose of gathering feedback. The idea was that there should be no surprises or last minute objects (i.e. meeting rework) when it came time to implement something new or improved. The stereotypical example of Nemawashi that everyone uses is the example of A3 reports. When your A3 report touched upon other areas you were directed to go and meet with those affected parties and explain your thinking. Usually this meant getting thoroughly drilled and questioned to an uncomfortable level for most people. However it is a good way to prevent mistakes and surprises when proposing some type of change…

Specifically getting back to the question at hand I do not equate Nemawashi with Lobbying. To me at least “lobbying” has a fairly negative connotation where you use influence, money, power, or some other means to accomplish your goal. You are not really interested in the input of other parties in fact in politics quite often you are intentionally either shutting them out or working around them by whatever means possible. In politics I suppose this is normal. However in business or science I think it is really bad practice. In Toyota we set out to “get the facts” and remain “objective” as possible. I did not lobby for a position for example once I realized it was not the best answer for the overall system. A lobbyist would continue regardless of what was best for the whole and focus upon the needs of the individual special interest group. I am not saying that some groups were not more powerful than others in Toyota…some groups were more powerful. However we strove to arrive at the best “total systems solution” based upon objective facts and data and a healthy amount of trial and error in many cases.

In A3 Thinking I wrote about the seven elements of A3 reports along with my co-author Durward Sobek. In sum total the elements get at the heart of this matter. Here is a list of the seven elements:

1. Logical Thinking Process

2. Objectivity

3. Results and Process

4. Synthesis, Distillation, and Visualization

5. Alignment

6. Coherency Within, Consistency Across

7. Systems Viewpoint

If you practice these seven elements properly you’ll achieve what Toyota called “Nemawashi”. They are of course tied in tightly with the whole PDCA (Plan Do Check Act) style of management. In reality I view these elements as components of good communication and effective planning which are universal. On an aside note I had the opportunity to work for a few years at the large consulting firm of McKinsey & Company in their operations practice. Interestingly McKinsey & Company like Toyota preferred not to have any “surprises” at official meetings with clients. As consultants you were expected to communicate and validate your findings with the client behind the scenes before the meeting. They referred to this process as “syndicating the message” with key members of staff on the client’s management team. It was not too different from the process and elements that I have described above in terms of intent. The big difference (at least compared to Toyota) was that the meetings were a lot longer and the presentation usually consisted of seemingly endless Powerpoint slides instead of a couple of A3′s. That is a topic for another day.