Learning the Ropes

August 12, 2013

This weekend we had one of those wonderful Chicago summer days that you always dream about especially when our weather can be so unpredictable. I had the splendid opportunity to sail on the tall ship “Lynx” which was here as part of the Tall Ships exhibit at Navy Pier. Not that I am always thinking about Lean or how organizations’ tick, but there were two things that struck a chord with me during our adventure.

Lynx sailing ship

Lynx sailing ship

Tall Ship Lynx

Here’s a little background on the Lynx. Lynx is a square topsail schooner based in Newport Beach, California. She is an interpretation of an American letter of marque vessel of the same name from 1812. The original Lynx completed one voyage, running the Royal Navy blockade; the British captured her in 1813 at the start of her second voyage.1


What impressed me was how they were able to get underway and set sail with such a small crew (with minimal help from us land lubbers). The Captain would call out an order, the First Mate and crew would call it back verbatim. There were many things going on, but the hands knew what they we supposed to do (standardized work). If one of the less experienced crew members did something that wasn’t up to standard the more experienced deck hand would show him or her how to do it correctly or the First Mate would take the time to do a short coaching moment.

Roger and Tony sporting the 5S Supply Champion Cap

Roger and Tony sporting the 5S Supply Champion Cap

They worked together as a team to get the task done efficiently and safely. The Captain (read: CEO) knew where he wanted to go. It was up to the crew to make it happen. The ship was large enough that there was no way that the Captain could see what everyone was doing. He had to trust the crew (read: respect for people) to carry out the orders with the help of the First Mate (read: front line supervisor).


Learning the Ropes

Learning the Ropes

This might seem like a simple one, but it dawned on me when I saw the crew at work “learning the ropes.” As a new crew member it could be overwhelming to know all the ropes that connect to the rigging and other parts of the ships. I asked one of the deckhands what it was like to “learn the ropes?” She said that it took her about a week and a lot of practice to understand where all the ropes go. She also mentioned how she was well-trained and that the crew was willing to help her out when she had questions or was unsure – now that’s pulling together!

It’s amazing what we can learn by visiting different groups, teams, companies and so on. Be open to new ideas. You may also be surprised how many of our Lean principles have been practiced for centuries without us even noticing. So let’s weigh anchor and get underway!

Reference: 1. Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynx_(tall_ship)

With all of the recent talk about the United States’ credit rating downgrade, you may not have remembered that Toyota’s credit rating was downgraded back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. During this period Moody’s downgraded Japan’s bond rating from AAA to AA1. They in-turn downgraded Toyota’s long-term bond rating. The startling part is why.

Hiroshi Okuda

Regarding Toyota’s lowered rating, the explanation that Moody’s offered was this: “Toyota is fixated on lifetime employment. Maintaining this system poses a risk to the future operations of the company.”

Toyota’s then President Hiroshi Okuda asked “A corporate bond rating is the ability to repay borrowed money, isn’t it? Toyota can pay all its bills back tomorrow. In the short-term, we keep excess cash on hand rather than turn to money management techniques so we’ll have liquidity just in case. If we can repay everything tomorrow, it goes without saying that we are triple-A.”(1)

Lifetime employment is a tenant of the Toyota Production System (TPS). It allows them to develop employees. Long-term employment shows emphatically the ethos of “Respect for People.” It is a little ironic that American companies tend to think having lifetime employees is a liability. Just think about all the knowledge that Toyota has built up over the years, the “Silent Knowledge” or things that haven’t been written down or even put into words. This allows them to continue to build on lessons learned and best practices. I had one client explain it to me this way, he said “We don’t have employees with 30 total years of experience; unfortunately we have employees with one year of experience 30 years in a row.”

While we may not fully understand the total impact of Standard & Poor’s decision to downgrade the US Governments ability to repay its debts, as lean practitioners we do know the value of “Respect for People.”

By the way, Moody’s and Fitch did not lower the US Governments rating (yet).

P.S. What happens if S&P and Moody’s merge? We may all be Moody & Poor. (Just a laugh)


(1)   The Toyota Leaders: An Executive Guide – Masaaki Sato