The Way of Toyota, Great Companies and Mary Zatina

Because I am married to the great governor of Michigan, I have had the chance to be a fly on the wall (generally a quiet and unobtrusive one) during meetings with executives from Toyota. These Toyota execs are like those I have gotten to know from Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For,” in that they get totally fired up when they start talking about the culture in their companies. The Toyota folks and the great company folks know that “culture beats strategy” every time. They have strategies to achieve results. But they know and constantly verbalize that the only way you get results is through people. For these folks it’s not just that people are the necessary means, but that people are ends in themselves. It’s not just that the employees are there for the company’s success, but at some really deep level, they believe the company is there for the employees’ success. So they pay attention to people. They have a “what” of results they’re pursuing, but they pay primary attention to the who and to the how.
These executives affirmed what a great leader named Mary Zatina has been showing me. Today, Mary, who has served as my chief of staff for four years, begins her new job as vice president at Oakwood Health Care System. At Oakwood they’ll find what I found out, what the governor’s cabinet directors all found out, and what the receptionists and maintenance people found out: Mary treats every person she meets as an end. She demonstrates active interest in who they are, not just in their roles but in their lives. Daniel Goleman uses an image for such emotional intelligence; he says it’s like a “lubricant” that helps people and organizations function smoothly. Mary acts with folks like Dorothy did with the Tin Man, always ready with a few squirts of oil for whoever needs encouragement or attention. I know my rusty joints got oiled at critical times. And my team often functioned, because of Mary, like a well-oiled machine.
Like the Toyota folks, Mary also brought the great leadership skill of looking at “the how.” Because she broke projects down in the planning process, we acted with efficiency and didn’t have to spend time fixing problems that could have been anticipated. Because she involved the people in planning who would have to execute, she uncovered pitfalls before we fell into them. Because she made us debrief – celebrating successes but noting shortcomings — we almost always did things markedly better the second time.
I remain a big believer in the “where” of vision and the “what” of strategy, but I sure want to keep learning from the Toyotas, the great companies, and the great leaders like Mary Zatina who see the value of the who and the how.
You have to see and appreciate others’ greatness if you really want to
Lead with your best self,

  • Bravo on treating each person as an end. It is great in any realm and greater in healthcare where caregivers act as agents. Up Michigan!

  • I’ve heard many excellent things about Mary from various people, both in and out of the government. I think people often underestimate how much their team members reflect on the team itself.
    Thank you for honoring her in such a wonderful way. I’m sure she’ll continue to succeed at Oakwood.

  • Dan, a great commentary and tribute to Mary – she is a wonderful person and I wish her the best at Oakwood!
    Your comment, “culture beats strategy” every time cannot be larger! You have heard me comment that leadership actions can be ‘climate changing’ or ‘culture changing’ depending on their substance, timing and linkage to values. You also know I facilitate and profess strategic planning as a unfamiliar art in many organizaztions. Strategies, simply tools on the bench, are great and of course every organization should have several mandated in their strategic plan. What most fail to realize is that it is the organizational CULTURE which guides the actions of its team members as they elect to pick up these ‘strategies’ and it is the organizational CULTURE which guides how they apply these tools to the organizational objectives.
    People are the key ingredient to everything at Toyota or anywhere else. Results like success, failure, progress and stagnation are all rooted in people.

  • The comment about serving as a lubricant is a powerful message. Many people who focus solely on results tend to view personal interactions as either an aid or detriment to achieving the ultimate goal. Through that lense, it is simply a waste of time to approach people for buy-in. However, the lesson that you have shared today is the fundamental benefit of greasing the wheel. People always want to be part of the solution if not at least part of the process, and how you approach people is step one to achieving the end goal.

  • Dan,

    Oakwood should be a great place for Mary’s skills; they have been working with the Toyota Production System for several years now.

    Hopefully your readers will take a look at to learn more about TPS; the nuts and bolts with some entertaining reading and ‘how to’ thrown in.

    In another century, as a wet behind the ears factory supervisor, I was told by an old hand that “the people that do the work know the work,listen to the people that do the work, give them the room and support they need to get the work done and the work will be done, well. Watch us and learn.”

    Toyota understands that and they also understand the significance of visual thinkers since observation is an essential element of the TPS culture. It is unfortunate our educational system continues to celebrate the sequential/verbal learner and identify the visual learner as disabled.

    Fortunately that didn’t stop Einstein, Faraday, Maxwell and others in their work. Yoda is probably in there somewhere too.


  • Dan,

    This was a great tribute to Mary Zatina and well deserved. She is a talented executive and touches everyone with a genuine, caring attitude. Oakwood is lucky to have her on their team. No doubt she will help them with both their culture and strategy.

  • Dan,
    I hear what you are saying and I believe what you are saying, the unfortunate thing right now is that we are not seeing this happen. This is true especially of the companies auto or not who are laying off. Their only vision is to cut expenses and cutting employees is the easiest thing. They need to start at the top of the heap and not at the bottom.
    How about the executives of any company out there to take a 25% cut out of their own $300,000 plus incomes. That would allow 2 or more employees at the bottom to keep their jobs.
    As a small business owner I am vowing to keep everyone working as long as I can and not to outsource. We all have to work a little harder and work as a team to keep the clients happy and the financial rewards will come.

  • I was delighted to see your tribute to Mary. I got to know her this past summer and feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with her on a few projects. I hope our paths will continue to cross. She is absolutely the best.

  • Dan,
    Your description of Mary Zatina’s work and impact on organizations is so true. She found time and a way to care for everyone; even when her plate was overflowing with priorities. I was continually and repeatedly amazed how she did it all; and did it all so well. She is a model and example for us all. I am fortunate and blessed to have had the opportunity to work with and know her. Thank you for celebrating her talents, and acknowledging her contributions.

  • In early 2005 Anita and I had the pleasure of introducing our family to Mary Zatina during a DMB reception for Jennifer and Dan. During our discussion Mary asked “how” could “we” really make State Employee Appreciation Day shine? Anita and I responded, “Why not have a special day at the ball-park with the Lansing Lugnuts?

    Kudos to Mary and staff who worked the idea into a reality. The summer of 2006 brought a fine day for a family friendly event at the ballpark. Memories include our National Anthem delivered with brilliance, children having spectacular fun and full representation across state government.

    Indeed, it was a warm celebration of service to our great state, Michigan! Fireworks to boot! I pray the event becomes an annual tradition.

    Thank you Dan, Mary and Staff for leading with your best self.
    Tom, Anita, Nikita, Bryant, Maya and Devina

  • Just a quick note, I have to say that I noticed Mary was ‘different’… in a good way 🙂 the very first time I met her. I worked for the L.G at the time and I walked out to talk to our receptionist Simone about something and she was talking to this woman whom I had never met and I joined easily in to the conversation (Mary made it very easy), and we sat there and shot the breeze for a few minutes… and I thought wow, what a down to earth nice lady, shortly thereafter Simone said “oh Kerri, have you met the First Gentleman’s Chief of Staff?” I have to say I was very surprised and delighted to meet a Chief of Staff that was that laid back and took the time like she was doing. Over the years I never really got to know her very well, but I can say I have never heard a bad word about her, and the few things I have heard made me realize she was indeed an all around great person. I wish her the best in her new endeavor!!!

  • To Mary Zatina: A woman of quiet elegance with many talents, one of the most important being humility.

    Thank you, Mary, for your service to this State, our communities and for leading with your best self.

  • Dan,
    The Toyota Production System is well known and respected by the domestic manufactures. In fact, many of the elements of our own production systems are modeled after the TPS. It is critical, however, that we acknowledge the cultural changes that have occured within GM, Ford an Chrysler. In particular at GM, about twenty years ago, the UAW and the company joinlty developed strategies for improving the safety, quality, and efficiency of our production operations. Since then, GM, with the help of its union partners, has returned to a very competitive posiiton in the industry. And, unlike Toyota, we continue to do this with 80% domestic content! And I know similar efforts have occured at Ford and Chrysler. While I acknowledge the success of Toyota, I am most proud of the hourly and salaried workers of our domestic manufacturers who have made significant contributions in returning us to greatness. We know we have far to go, but the momentum is there. I invite you to see first hand the culture changes in our plants and hopefully feel moved to write about us as well. Thanks Dan.

    • Frank,

      Thanks so much for writing about this week’s RFL. I love your pride about GM and the way you speak to the kind of spirit I was writing about: openness on management’s part to new ideas, and an approach which recognizes the value of listening to the people who are closest to the work, involving them in critical decisions, and treating them with respect.

      I appreciate too your balanced approach. It helps create an opening for learning and for re-examination. I think that approach stands in stark contrast to so much of the the kind of attacks of black-and-white-righteousness that have found their way into the papers and blogsites this week. I’ll bet people want to work for and with you, because you speak directly yet fairly at the same time. Your Jesuit training shows through!

      You invited me to see the good things at GM, as well as at Toyota. As you probably know, I HAVE written positive things about the Big 3 (as recently as 11/27/06 I was celebrating Ford’s incredible heritage, resilience and contribution), and undoubtedly I will do so again. This week’s column was never intended as an attack on the Big 3 or anyone else. I am sorry that some people amidst these brutally challenging times felt that saying good about Toyota meant I was saying something bad about our homegrown companies. The last thing in the world I would want to do is to somehow dampen the spirits of great people fighting for our way of life, our future, our jobs. It saddened me to know that some of my Big 3 readers felt that way. It gratified me that you and one other person acted with integrity and wrote directly to me about it. Thanks!

      What’s the lesson for me, as I try to lead with ideas? It’s certainly clear that it’s tough to extol some without having others feel diminished. I can appreciate this. It would be hard for me to hear a friend say good things about Dick DeVos a month before my wife stands for re-election against him; or frustrating to hear a Detroiter champion the Heat when the Pistons are about to take them on. Now, I think we can learn from our opposition and in some ways — as idealistic as it may sound — we ought to have the clinical eyes to look dispassionately at the strengths of others. But I have certainly seen that especially when the stakes are high and friends have their backs against the wall, I need to heighten my sensitivity to how I express things. A big lesson for me is to be more explicit, more clear about what I’m NOT saying, and more assertively win-win in my descriptions. I look forward to writing more, for instance, about the ways — clearly documented — that the domestics have been seriously closing the quality gap.

      I’ll have to come see the great things you’re doing in Pontiac. And thanks for prompting me to keep thinking and to try a little harder to

      lead with my best self,


      • Thanks for the reply Dan. I too appreciate the balance in your articles. Keep them coming. All the best to Mary in her new position.

  • Dan,
    Your recognition of Mary Z. as a model leader is a tribute to both her and to yourself as a leader. Being able to recognize the positive skills, attributes, and behaviors of others is an example and modeling of the emotional intelligence competencies of developing others and team work. I have worked with Mary as a peer for a number of years and count her as a good friend as well and I am very happy to hear of her new career opportunity. You go Girl!

    I also read the News article today that criticized your newsletter as being “insensitive” to the US automakers and our state businesses and economy. Although I am very conscious of the impact of the economy from my work in the consulting, coaching and training and development fields, I, in no way saw your message as being un-supportive of US and MI businesses. I read the message as your tribute to a best in class or benchmark company that we can learn from or not. I have family members from my dad to brothers to others who work for the BIG 3 and in talking to them, none felt the message was not supoprtive of local companies.

    Keep the messages coming!
    Sandi Nielsen
    Executive Director Profesional Education Center, College of Business, EMU
    VP Programming for Ann Arbor ASTD

  • Dan,
    “Toyota gets brilliant results from average people operating perfect processes. Toyota observes that competitors get average results from brilliant people operating broken processes.”

    You, sir, were fortunate to work with a woman who had the vision and the courage to communicate “what” (result) she wanted and to allow the “who” to look intensely at the the “how” to be certain that the “how” would get them the “what.” The devil is in the detail of the process. The great leader knows that the people who operate the process can find the devil and get rid of him. She encourages them to make the process perfect.

    Such courage and such a display of lack of ego. You were watching an artist at work. You shall miss her greatly. Give her successor the latitude to lead the same way.


    Andrew Masson

  • Dan, Please check out the blog at I was appalled at the comments directed at you in the Detroit News. I know you have Michigan’s best at heart. I know that you would endorse our friend Jim’s tagline “love em and lead em”



  • You are telling the truth, man. Forget about those people who know nothing but attacking the truth. The truth is, big three suck and they never pay attention to the professional people because they don’t have union. They don’t respect people, knowledge, loyalty and in that they should be punished.

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