Cutting the Andon Cord

By Tim Autrey

The Toyota Production System, often more affectionately referred to as “TPS, is built upon a set of underlying principles, embodied in what became known as the “Toyota Way”. This ‘system’ is largely responsible for the company that Toyota has grown into over the past four decades. We’ve owned four Toyotas- all exceptionally good vehicles!

The TPS laid the foundation for “LEAN manufacturing”, which developed into an entire industry unto its own. You’re probably thinking, “This is o-l-d news. Why is he taking up space (and my precious time) talking about this in a publication that is supposed to offer ‘cutting edge’ insights and information?”

The basic philosophies of TPS are quite sound, which is why it has been so popular and done so much good. Unfortunately, people who become ‘experts’ in something (such as LEAN) can easily fall into the trap of getting stuck in the dogma, expending tons of energy defending ‘what has been’ at the expense of ‘what is’, or ‘what could be’.

The andon cord was/is an emergency cable strung above the Toyota assembly lines. The idea is that line workers could pull the cord to alert others should they discover a problem on the line. If needed, any worker could even stop the entire line. GREAT idea. It was copied by many other car manufacturers.

Even great ideas can be made better. In August 2014, Toyota began replacing the andon cords with yellow call buttons perched waist-high, within easy reach along the line. Less clutter, elimination of potential safety hazards, and a nicer working environment. BETTER idea.

As I see it, human performance is in its infancy as a ‘system’, ‘approach’, ‘method’, or ‘strategy’ (whatever you like to call it) for performance improvement. In spite of this, many professionals in this field remain attached to its “andon cords”: focus [solely] upon tools, metrics, and investigations after-the-fact. In short, “the way we’ve [always] done it.”

As far as I am concerned, Human Performance offers the ultimate frontier in performance improvement. Ongoing learning about the physiology and psychology of the human mind and psyche are opening up [barn] doors of opportunity…for those not mired in past thinking!

This is one of the reasons why I ‘went into my cave’ and wrote 6-Hour Safety Culture- to lay out what we (in PPI) have learned about “human performance” over the past decade, and to open up the conversation for the years that lie before us. There’s information at the end of this piece about how you can grab a free download of the entire book by helping to spread next-level thinking.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter Two of the book, “Third-Dimension Thinking.” I hope it stimulates a few brain cells…

The Death of a President 1

On Thursday, December 12, 1799, George Washington rode out to inspect his property. The weather turned bad, with rain, hail, and snow. He stayed out longer than he should have, and apparently caught a cold. He wasn’t feeling great as the evening progressed, yet he felt obliged to stay up late to complete some paperwork.

The next morning he awakened with a bad sore throat, and was generally feeling worse than he had the night before. He hadn’t finished all of his inspections on Thursday however, so after some breakfast, he had his horse prepared, donned his hat and cloak, and headed out to complete the job. He continued to feel progressively worse, returning around mid-day. He remained indoors for the rest of the afternoon, and retired early on Friday evening.

His sleep was not good. As the night deepened, his breathing became more and more of a struggle. Finally, he became convinced he needed some medical help. As dawn approached, he called for Albin Rawlins, his estate overseer, to help him. The local doctors would come later in the morning. As he was having more and more trouble breathing, Washington directed Rawlins to administer the “cutting edge” medical procedure for such serious maladies- bloodletting.

Interestingly, Martha didn’t think that the cutting and draining procedure was such a great idea, and begged that there not be too much blood let out; however, George was feeling quite poor. As even Mr. Rawlins grew hesitant, Washington encouraged him, "Don't be afraid. The orifice is not large enough. More, more."

Three local doctors arrived later in the morning, and in combination with plasters and other intended remedies, continued the bloodletting. By all historical records, it is estimated that somewhere between five and seven pints of blood were drained from the first president of the United States. At 10:10PM that Saturday evening, George Washington was dead. Yes, he likely had pneumonia, but administration of the “cutting edge” medical technique of the day, bloodletting, undoubtedly helped speed his demise.

Why did the brightest medical minds of the day subscribe to a technique that most of us today look upon with a sense of horror? Because of a paradigm. You see, the paradigm in the late eighteenth century was that disease was caused by “bad blood”. And by letting the “bad blood” out, the person would [obviously] get better.

As science, and medical science, has evolved into the 21st century, how do we look at this particular paradigm today?

Managing People Like Things

How are people in your organization currently being ‘dealt with’? I’d be willing to bet you have a “human resources department”, some sort of personnel appraisal process, and perhaps even a “progressive discipline” system. In and of themselves, none of these are bad, or evil, or even of ill intent. Collectively, however, in many organizations they’ve generated and continue to support the accepted context that people need to be (1) compared to some arbitrary standard or graded on a ‘curve’, (2) managed through a set of prescriptive ‘must’ and ‘must not’ policies, and (3) are to be ‘punished’ should they stray from the rules or otherwise choose to ‘color outside the lines’. All of these aspects have one common theme- control.

Why are these methods of dealing with the very people who are responsible for making our organizations able to function so predominant? Because of an outdated paradigm. And I will say with no reservation, based upon the successes we’ve had with tens of thousands of workers over the past ten years, combined with the ongoing learning about human motivation and discoveries about how the brain actually works, that the old-school paradigm of managing people like things is today as outdated (and ineffective) as bloodletting!

Having just read my last statement, I would imagine right now that you are either (1) excited about what you’ve heard so far and cannot wait to continue onward, or (2) think I don’t have a clue about management, and are mounting your mental defenses for why all of your controls are necessary (in which case you’ll likely not read much further). Either way, since you’ve read this far, if your organization is currently mired (or heavily biased) in command and control, I’d like to borrow words from Dr. Phil, and ask, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

Third dimension thinking is having the mental courage to consider that maybe, just maybe, there is a different way to look at things, and ultimately, a different way to go about doing things. In what I consider to be his best work, one of my mentors, Stephen Covey, offered a brilliant alternative to control, to the tendency to manage people like things, in his book, The Eighth Habit[ii],

“Leadership can become a choice (moral authority) rather than only being a position (formal authority). The key is to think in terms of release, not control; in terms of transformation, not just transaction. In other words, you manage things, you lead people.”

6-Hour Safety Culture, published by the Human Performance Association, is available at amazon.com

Would you like to grab a FREE copy of 6-Hour Safety Culture?

Click Here to help spread the word!



[i] Vibul V Vadakan, MD, FAAP; The Asphyxiating and Exsanguinating Death of President George Washington; Presented at the Annual Miranda Lecture Series of Kaiser Permanente Bakersfield 2002

[ii] The Eight Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness; Stephen R. Covey; Simon & Schuster; January, 2103

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