Jeffrey Liker is Professor Emeritus of Industrial and Operations Engineering, University of Michigan. He is a professional speaker and advisor through his company Liker Lean Advisors, LLC, a network of associates to teach and consult in the Toyota Way. Liker is also a best-selling author of books including The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles and his latest one, The Toyota Product Development System: Integrating People, Process, and Technology.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in Wayne, New Jersey. School came easy to me and I should have been an excellent student who followed all the rules and stayed with other high-achieving kids. Instead, at age 13 I started playing guitar and fell in with troubled kids who were always getting in trouble, mostly from working class backgrounds. I hung out with kids like that, borderline juvenile delinquents until I was 17. It was not my best choice but it did give me experience with a diversity of thinking and has kept me humble. Even as a Professor at the University of Michigan I never felt like a member of the elite faculty who was always an A student and went to the best universities in the world. I think my interest in sociology and learning about different types of people came out of that.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I wish I had figured out that a lot of what they were teaching in school was valuable and could stick with you for life. I had little interest in history or great literature or even mathematics even though I later got a degree in engineering. This set me back a lot and to this day I do not get references to great books and struggle to teach myself history. I also did not learn the art of learning. I played guitar but was not developing skills in a disciplined way. I first started learning classical guitar starting with the basics in my 50s.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Part of my professional mission is to teach the value of people in creating great organizations. It seems almost silly to think otherwise but so many leaders see their organization like a machine that they are trying to manipulate to get the results they want. Buy this consulting program, implement this technology, merge with another company. It is all transactional. The real potential comes from investing in developing people who can think scientifically and creatively and continuously move the organization forward. In the world of lean that I am part of so many people use lean as a toolkit to eliminate waste and reduce cost. And the changes they make rarely stick. The Toyota Way that I write about focuses on developing people to have clear goals, deeply understand the current reality, and continuously learn their way to challenging goals.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
Going back to high school in the summer before my senior year I came to a sudden realization that I had wasted the last 5 years. Hanging out with troubled youth, sitting around smoking pot, and even playing in a rock band, I had gotten very undisciplined and was not learning. I was around people all the time yet felt lonely. In a psychology course in my junior year, I read The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. It changed my life. He spoke about connecting with other people through love as what makes us happy and energizes us. He talks about the limits of escapist activities which are escapes from loneliness. He wrote about love as an activity, not something you fall into, and to get good at it you have to work at it in a disciplined way. I quit the rock band, stopped smoking pot, and began to work on myself spending a lot of time alone learning folk guitar and doing a lot of reading, and paying more attention in school.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
I think it was my convoluted background jumping from industrial engineering to sociology and back to becoming a professor of industrial engineering. Most professors focus very narrowly on a specialty and I was always learning broadly trying out different things. And I was opportunistic grabbing interesting experiences. When I was doing a post-doc at Cornell in sociology and looking for an academic job I saw an ad for a job in industrial and operations engineering (IOE) at the University of Michigan. Being a professor at UM was a dream job for me though I would have expected it to be in sociology. The IOE department wanted someone with an undergraduate engineering degree and a Ph.D. in social behavioral science. It was a perfect fit even though I did not know what to expect and they did not either. In my first year, I was asked to be part of a US-Japan auto study. I did not know anything about Japanese management, or about the auto industry, or about management for that matter. But once again I took the opportunity and jumped in with both feet. It shaped the rest of my career.
What is your morning routine?
These days I am retired from the university so I have a lot of freedom. I rarely set my clock so I wake when I wake which tends to be about 7 am. I am not a great sleeper. I look through my email and respond to anything I can respond to quickly. I try to practice one-piece flow. If I look at something I try to dispose of it with an instant response so I do not accumulate a backlog of items. I then “cook” the same breakfast every day. Quaker instant oatmeal with bran cereal and strawberries and bananas and a latte from our coffee machine. Then it varies. I try to exercise for at least 30 minutes a day. Before COVID it was a group exercise at Orange Theory Fitness and now it is 30 minutes on an elliptical watching a TV series on my iPad. So I might do that right away, or jump into writing a blog I promised. For much of 2020, I was writing the second edition of The Toyota Way. Often I do a webinar of some kind. At some point in the morning, I will spend 30 minutes practicing classical guitar and then I will do another session in the afternoon. I also play golf so sometimes I spend the morning into afternoon playing golf.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
For much of my time at Michigan, I was highly focused on getting ahead which means getting promoted to Associate Professor with tenure and then to Full Professor and getting well known in my field. I also had a parallel activity of writing Toyota Way books and had a consulting company and regularly traveled and did speeches, training, and consulting. What I neglected was my family. For the last seven years, I have gotten better at being a husband and father and that has made the most difference in my life.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
The one-piece flow concept that I learned from the Toyota Production System probably makes the most difference. It is in contrast to batching where you accumulate a backlog and then try to work through a task intensively over a short period of time, like a student cramming before the test. With one-piece flow, you break the big task into smaller ones and steadily work through them continually over a longer period of time. For example, when I wrote the original Toyota Way I was at first doing a lot of research and trying to do something every day interviewing, organizing notes, working on a detailed outline. Then my family and I packed up in January of 2003 to drive out to Phoenix Arizona. It was my sabbatical year and I had a visiting appointment at Arizona State University with no duties there. My typical day was to get to the office at 9 am and work on writing a chapter until noon, drive to our home there, have lunch, then spend the afternoon with my family playing golf or touring. At night I would read through and edit what I wrote. By the end of April when we packed up to move back home the book was done and then published later that year. I think the publisher took longer to copy edit and typeset the book than I took to write it.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
Growing up it was science fiction. I read everything the local library had. At that time SF books were relatively rare. One of my favorites was Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Being a teenager I could relate to the angst of the Martian featured in the book who was trying to adapt to life on earth. He went through various struggles including a period of pleasure escapism. Ultimately, he decided to try to make a positive difference in the world and having learned about humans he concluded the best way was by forming a religion with himself as the messiah. I never saw myself as a messiah but it was interesting that what Heinlein learned about was the sociology of the human race. Later I went into a Ph.D. program in sociology because I was interested in social dynamics.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
I start each chapter of each of my books with a quote so there are so many that I love. One recently that I have thought about a lot is by Alvin Toffler who wrote Future Shock: “You’ve got to think about the big things while you are doing small things so that all the small things go in the right direction.” Toffler was a futurist so he was writing about broad societal trends, yet he realized that the truly big achievements of humankind happen in many small steps. Too often we assume that innovation happens in big aha moments, in huge leaps, and ignore the sweat and many failed experiments of the inventor. Or we get so caught up in fixing things we lose sight of the big picture and our purpose.