TAIICHI Ohno (1912-1990), Toyota's famous and greatest management icon, said many times to his factory engineers: "Having no problems is the biggest problem of all." This oft-repeated maxim has somehow pushed almost all Toyota workers since time immemorial to do a proactive search of operational issues around them.

Ohno concluded that the shop floor workers were the key. It's not the line leaders, unit supervisors or even their managers who can discover and solve problems; it's the people working the line. The question, however is: How many would be like Ohno's engineers who were trained and continuously trained to be proactive in identifying and solving problems? Not so many, I suppose. Don't take my word for it. Take a good look of what's happening around your office and factory.

If your organization does not have a continuous improvement mindset, chances are that employees will simply ignore problems until management decides to do something. Workers, thinking that problem-solving is not part of their job description will ignore problems unless their health, safety and job security are threatened.

The blue bird

But somehow there's an exception. In hundreds of my kaizen workshops, I discovered one chief executive officer (CEO) who was not convinced that I could help them improve their problem-solving capabilities with the help of an army of workers. I'm not sure about the reason. While the CEO had approved the workshop upon the prodding of the company chairman, he was not exactly happy that my intervention could do so much in eliminating waste in their operations.

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Maybe he thought that kaizen was not applicable to information technology (IT), which was their main line of business. I'm guessing. But if he had asked me, I could have explained the meaning of lean IT. One thing was sure, the CEO was betrayed by his faint smile, when he participated in our activity, that showed his inner belief against problem solving by his workers.

The activity I was referring to was the blue bird, one of the psychological games in the bestselling book Kokology: The Game of Self-Discovery (2010) by Isamu Saito, a psychology professor and Tadahiko Nagao, head of the Kokology project team. It involves a blue bird that flies through an open window and is trapped in your room.

Imagine this. It could be a special bird that attracted you, so you've decided to keep it in a cage. The next morning as you wake up, to your great surprise, you discover the bird has changed its color from blue to yellow. You watch over the bird while giving it some food. In the morning of the third day, the bird changes its color from yellow to bright red. On the fourth day, the bird turns completely to black.

On the fifth day, you anticipate that the bird will turn into another color. So which one will you pray happens? One, the bird stays black. Two, the bird changes back to its original color, blue. Three, the bird becomes white. And fourth, the bird turns golden.

All participants were requested to take a vote by standing in front of a standee bearing the color of their choice. Out of 25 participants, the CEO was the only one who chose black. I felt goose bumps all over me. Reluctantly, I showed the interpretation of the bird's color as suggested by the Kokology authors.

Participants who chose gold are described as "fearless ... don't know the meaning of pressure ... and believe that every crisis is an opportunity. Those who chose white, meanwhile, are "cool and decisive under pressure ... don't waste time on fretting and indecision." People who chose blue are "practical optimists ...[and] believe that life is a mix of good and bad."

The color black, which was chosen by the CEO, is described as representing someone with a "pessimistic outlook ... tend[s] to believe that once a situation goes bad, it never really turns to normal." I tried to downplay the situation by saying in so many words that Kokology games could be like a horoscope that should not be the metric for one's outlook in life.

Social loafing

After that Kaizen workshop, two questions remained with me. What would happen to the result of my intervention despite the fact that I helped them discover more than $90,000 in savings as verified by the company's accounting department? Would they implement the solutions?

In psychology, there's such a thing as social loafing or a situation when a person, regardless of his or her job, spends less effort in a making a group activity successful. At the end of our Kaizen workshop, I was worried that a social loafing CEO could sabotage the workers' effort despite a clear evidence of their success.

Should I inform the company chairman about the successful result of my intervention? I decided against it. Let the workers and their managers take the matter seriously. It was possible that the CEO would not pursue the whole idea of making kaizen part of their corporate culture.

I can only do so much. I can lead a horse into a pool of water but if it doesn't want to drink or swim, there's nothing I can do.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant on human resources and total quality management. Chat with him on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter or email your feedback to [email protected] or via https://reyelbo.com.