To illustrate how just-in-time executive learning can work inside a real company, consider the example of Toyota’s U.S. subsidiary, Toyota Motor Sales (TMS). In an effort to apply its “lean” philosophies to the service side of the business, the company embedded a group of consultants from Toyota’s corporate university within TMS’s strategic project teams. The consultants’ sole mission was to help the project teams “learn their way to success” by learning as much as possible in order to best address real challenges in real time.
One of these project teams was in the process of developing new-product brochures when an executive leading the team discovered that customers in some locations were not able to get their hands on product information relevant to their markets. He immediately called his team together and charged them to pick one product and think about it differently, with the goal of communicating options and model information in specific markets. They set to work, quickly realizing that customers could get the product information they needed in a timely fashion if the company simply offered the material online.
As this was happening, the embedded learning team members also realized other products could benefit from having brochures on the company’s Web site. “Why stop there?” they thought. “Why not look for additional ways to enhance the impact of the company’s product information?”
At the request of, and in cooperation with, the team’s executives, the consultants facilitated a learning intervention in the same rooms where the product team had been hard at work for a number of weeks. That made it easy for team members to grab relevant data or find a colleague in a supporting department who had important information to offer. Over several days, this effort played out through focused work sessions facilitated by Toyota’s own executives and in-house learning consultants.
It included intensive, no-holds-barred analyses, as well as interactions with dealers, advertising and other functional areas. The team quickly identified several high-impact improvements. Some brochures, for instance, had errors in them. So the team set up a proofreading system that would catch those errors before copy got posted on the Web site or went into print.
For dealers who had been frustrated because consumers were getting brochures that described product options not available to customers in their respective geographic locations, the team devised new processes. These enabled the company to provide more accurate, customized brochures to consumers in every location. These could be printed anytime, anywhere, by downloading selected feature descriptions from an online menu.
The learning intervention closed with a series of analyses that showed demonstrable benefits along several dimensions of value-added performance. Traditionally, at Toyota, performance measures focus on one of four key impact areas: revenue/cost enhancement, improved cycle time, improved customer satisfaction or employee productivity. With these data in hand, a service manager can — in real time — approve or modify a plan or send a team back to do more work. In this case, the sponsoring executive got the insight he needed to integrate this project with other strategic initiatives under way at the time.
Demand for the online brochures went up. Costs went down dramatically. Satisfaction rose — and so did mastery of reusable tools for adding value to similar efforts in the future.