Can We Learn from Toyota?


My Wesley faculty colleague Jessicah Duckworth called my attention to a National Public Radio story about the mistakes that led to the recall crisis Toyota is now facing. After listening to the “Morning Edition” segment on the web, I agreed with Jessicah that there was a lesson here for church leaders.

Renewal does not come in the church by forgetting its heritage but in recovering its theological and historical rootage in ways that matter for the current time and place.

For many years, Toyota has been regarded as a model of leadership and management. The Toyota Way guided their work, one part of which is The 5 Whys. This is a Japanese philosophy of repeatedly askingWhy? to find not only the direct sources of problems, but also the root of those sources. The process begins with naming the problem, such as “the gas pedal sticks,” followed by asking Why? A first answer might be, “Because the pedal gets caught in the floor mat.” But the process does not stop there. Again and again, the question is asked:Why? Normally five rounds of asking Why? will get to the root of the problem.

The 5 Whys was a critical component of Toyota’s problem-solving methodology from the beginning of the company. The founder, grandfather of the current president, incorporated it into the life of what became a most trustworthy organization. The NPR story examined what had gone wrong, featuring an interview with a Toyota employee. He said that they had failed to utilize their own system, The 5 Whys, to address root causes of problems when they first surfaced. They had forgotten one of the singular sources of their success that had been passed on from the founder.

Church leaders of every generation face challenges and problems, and they search for faithful ways to be the church in their time. They hear God’s word that comes through the prophet Isaiah: Look! I am doing a new thing! And with their congregations, they prayerfully discern a new vision for this new day.

But church leaders do best when they also remember that they lead out of the richness of the Christian tradition with its reservoir of lessons from the past. Renewal does not come in the church by forgetting its heritage but in recovering its theological and historical rootage in ways that matter for the current time and place. God also says through Isaiah: Look to the rock from which you were hewn.

There is a temptation in every generation of church (or business) leaders to think that surely they care more and know more than those who went before. They must take account of what is new, but no generation of leaders has all of God’s wisdom. Each builds upon lessons developed in the past to help address new challenges today.


About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

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