How to squeeze water out of a dry towel



LAST Saturday was another exciting day for me reviewing the Thinking Production System, a.k.a. the Toyota Production System to a group of 20 young managers and line supervisors at Rohm Electronics, a major Japanese semiconductor firm nestled in a beautiful, tree-lined sprawling facility in Carmona, Cavite.

Its factory is a perfect blend of technology and nature, hosting the world-class talent of more than 3,600 Filipino workers. As soon as you enter its factory, you will be greeted by a signboard that says something like they have not encountered any untoward health or safety issue for about 5,600 days or around 15 years!

To top it all, my favorite detail is the seamless, well-coordinated effort on the part of its Filipino management team to make my third visit free from any hitch. Every time I visit Rohm, I feel the warm embrace of its management team. Rohm’s reception area is welcoming to any visitor. The meeting rooms, which are divided by marbled glass partitions, are comfortable enough for employees and their visitors to have productive meetings, away from the hustle and bustle of humming machines.

The Rohm Production System has a similar approach to TPS. Just like any world-class production facility, Rohm adheres to the universal principle of kaizen (for the Japanese) and lean (for western managers). Practically, it has everything one needs to manifest operational excellence in this part of the world.

Perpetual learning of the principles and applying it in real-work life is the perfect way to achieve this. It’s like squeezing water out of a dry towel – a Japanese mantra, which is often credited to Eiji Toyoda (1913-2013), Toyota’s longest-serving CEO and is often referred to as the Japanese equivalent of Henry Ford.

“To get water out of a dry towel” is a figure of speech which means the perpetual solicitation and processing of employee ideas. It can only happen if you encourage all workers and their bosses (without exception) to strive every day and everywhere to think of as many ideas as possible, apply old solutions to new problems, and use new solutions on old problems.

To do this is to require everyone to fulfill an idea quota every month, like what Rohm is doing – with all of its 3,600 workers giving two ideas every month. Every organization must rely on its corporate sperm count to fertilize an egg that could make it big in the long-term. Hundreds of thousands of employee ideas, if processed and applied into the system can do a lot for any organization trying to improve its product quality and labor productivity.

Still, I’ve seen many companies bigger than Rohm fumbling along the way, making them good illustrations of W. Edward Deming’s denunciation that “80 per cent of all problems can be traced to management.” For one, many managers don’t appreciate the ideas of people as you hear them mouthing killer phrases like – “we’ve not done it before” and “the boss would not like it” or irritating words of the same adverse effect to people.

Even up to this modern age of industrial democracy, I hear complaints from ordinary workers who complain about absurd management policies like not being allowed to take a nap during lunch breaks. Why not? Because management says so is a familiar refrain.

“Downward communication cannot work and do not work,” Peter Drucker declared in in his 1973 classic, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. Obviously, the only exception to this is in case of an emergency. Since time immemorial, employee empowerment signaled the demise of management command-and-control, just like what they’ve done with the military mantra “obey first, before you complain”, which has become irrelevant in the corporate world.

Why not? Even the genius of all generals up there can’t make everything happen. A multi-star general can’t solve a problem for so many reasons, including the limitations of time and resources, among others. Instead, the first best practice of an effective general is to ask what should be done. A strategic approach, according to Drucker is “to ask what needs to be done” as compared to the option — “what do I want to do?”

Now, you may ask the perennial question – when you try to squeeze water out of the employee’s towel, would you need money to motivate them? My answer is a big “NO.” Not necessarily. In fact, it is the worst form of motivation. Instead, what I find most rewarding to people is the pride of workmanship, but not until your competitor discovers its expiry date and begins to pirate your most valued workers.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random thoughts.


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