/What Toyota and the Green Berets have in common
lean management and the US military

What Toyota and the Green Berets have in common

lean management and the US military

INTERVIEW – What do the United States Army’s Special Forces unit and Toyota have in common? To find out, we spoke to the Green Berets’ former Director of Training at the LEI summit in New Orleans.

Interviewee: Sam MacPherson, Lean Enterprise Transformation Leader at the Lean Leadership Academy and former Director of Training of the United States Army’s Special Forces unit.

Planet Lean: Who are the Green Berets? Why are they considered an example of excellence?

Sam MacPherson: The Green Berets are the United States Army’s Special Forces unit. They are part of the Army’s special operations group. They are the unconventional warfare experts. They are considered the example of operational excellence because of their culture of excellence. They are the elite team-based organization – you can take a Special Forces unit, break it down into little parts and those parts will still operate as a team. They take the initiative and are used to operating without any support from the mother Army. All branches of the US Military have special operations, but the Green Berets are the cornerstone of all other special operations efforts in the United States Military.

PL: What parallels can be drawn between the Green Berets and Toyota?

SMP: They are both team-based organizations, and as such they both operate in small teams. In Toyota the teams are generally five to six people with a team leader, and you will have four or five team leaders reporting to a group leader. This is similar in the Special Forces.

The training for a Toyota leader starts at team member level. There are clear qualification requirements prior to promotion to team leader. Once you are in the team leader role, there are core competencies for that role that are developed throughout your career at Toyota. It is career-long training.

This is also true in the Special Forces. We train our leaders throughout their entire career, starting with the Special Forces qualification course, training them to be Green Berets. We then continue to develop them as leaders to lead larger teams throughout their careers.

PL: What is the most common mistake that you see organizations make?

SMP: One of the things we are not doing a good job of is developing the leaders who will lead the future and the growth of the organization. Rather than focusing on process improvement only, use every process improvement opportunity as an opportunity to develop your leaders. You will need them to be the future of your organization. Like Toyota, the Green Berets hire their leaders from within. We have to develop the Green Berets today that will be the future leaders of the organization at national level tomorrow. Focus on developing your future leaders today!

PL: In your experience, what makes a good lean leader?

SMP: Number one, the ability to coach, teach, train and communicate. Critical to a Green Berets leader, as well as a lean leader, is the ability to develop other leaders. Operational leaders need to be developing other operational leaders. Yes, we also want out-of-the-box thinkers. Being able to use PDCA thinking is a critical skill but you need to have those fundamental lean values, such as the Toyota Way values. You need to have a lean leader’s thinking structure, to be able to think in a PDCA manner and be innovative as part of the process. And then you need to behave as the model for other lean leaders, and for your team. 


Sam MacPherson photograph

Sam MacPherson is an internationally recognized lean enterprise transformation leader and has dedicated over 28 years to developing organizational leaders, senior leadership teams, and designing lean enterprise management systems. He was first introduced to TPS and the Shingo method in the mid-1980s. In the 1990s he studied first hand at TMMK. Sam led successful lean transformations at Crown Cork and Seal, before being recalled to active military service after the 9/11 attacks. He was Director of Special Operations Plans for the Elite Task Force Dagger of the US Army 5th Special Forces Group during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. After his retirement, he co-founded (in 2011) the Lean Leadership Academy with Art Smalley and Russ Scaffede.