‘Shusa’: Leaders never run out of problems to solve

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Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

A FARMER was seen erecting a new structure in his farm. When asked what he was building, he replied: “Well, that depends. If I can rent it, then it’s a cottage. If I can’t, then it’s a cow shed.” Many people like this come-what-may farmer don’t know exactly what strategic planning is all about. They perceive that the hardest part of management is coming up with a new idea without knowing how to do it.

This brings us once again to the distinction between a manager and a leader, and why they have to be distinguished in the first place. To explain the distinction in farmer-talk, French diplomat Charles-Maurice said it clearly: “I’m afraid of an army of 100 sheep led by a lion than an army of 100 lions led by a sheep.”

In simple terms, a manager is one who organizes and coordinates things, while a leader inspires and motivates. Obviously, a charismatic leader is best appreciated because even without him lifting a finger, his followers make things happen for a common cause.

In particular, at Toyota a leader is defined as “shusa” or the boss, the leader of the team whose job is to design and engineer a new product and get it into full production. According to James Womack, Daniel Jones, and Daniel Roos in “The Machine that Changed the World” (1990, 2007), in many Japanese companies, the position of shusa carries great power and is “perhaps the most coveted” as it is a stepping-stone to a better and challenging assignment in the organization.


Sometimes, the notion of being a shusa appears daunting because it sounds like the sort of thing that requires specialized skills, equipment, funding, top management support, and of course, charisma. Sure they are very important but it doesn’t have to be limited that way.

Alden Sapit, Vice President for Manufacturing at Toyota Motor Philippines shares a great example of what a shusa is all about. In our April 24, 2014 Lean Leadership Manila Summit at Makati Shangri-la, Sapit describes the recent accomplishment of the local Toyota unit and how it projects lean leadership in the industry.

I find Engineer Sapit as a homegrown, energetic, hardworking and fast-tracking shusa achieving the post of a vice-president in 15 years after graduating from UP Diliman with a degree in industrial engineering.

I can imagine the hundreds of small experiments (kaizen projects) that he did for Toyota. Without me knowing in detail how he did it, I can hazard a guess that he’s constantly close to context in continuous improvement day in, day out.

I’ve interacted with many leaders or shusa in the past. One thing that I learned from them is the amount of innovations that they created for themselves and the organizations that they work for. Once they have started with innovations, they can’t be stopped.

Fortunately for the shusa, especially at Toyota, ideas need not be expensive or time-consuming. Top management would readily accept recommendations from a shusa because many of them are low-cost and common sense solutions. They know how to handle rejections and all those killer questions from top management.

“What can I do to secure top management approval on my project?” Of course, your track record should precede everything. If not, you can start by begging, pleading, or pouting in the hope that you get approval. Or you can prove it in clear terms and no risk to the organization.

The best way is to maximize the use of current organizational resources. Find some equipment that is not in use. Locate workers that are underutilized. Discover idle office or factory space that can be of valuable use to the organization. The list is endless.

Taiichi Ohno (1912-1990) said: “Use your brain, not the company’s money.” This is all that it takes for a “shusa” to be respected by management and its workers. It would be better if you can find some kind of way to scrape together inexpensive experiments that address management’s most critical assumptions. Show people what you can do with the minimum of resources and you can go anywhere.

It’s a compelling argument for what you could do. But first, you only have to identify the real problem. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) said: “If I have one hour to solve a problem, I will spend 55 minutes defining the real problem, then I can solve it in 5 minutes.”

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

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