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The Toyota Job Description: Follow Standards & Find Better Ways

By Jon Miller Published on October 19th, 2004

The Toyota managers who share their insights with us on our study missions to Japan tell us that there are two things that are part of every Toyota’ employee’s job. They are:
1) Follow the standard
2) Find a better way
This is the essence of kaizen. These simple yet profound rules are what drive every employee to maintain safety, quality, low cost, and on-time, and strive to make it better. It sounds so simple, yet how many of us who think we’ve made good progress on our Lean journey could say that our organizations live by these rules?
Taiichi Ohno said “Where there is no standard there can be no kaizen (improvement).” When the fastest, safest, best quality, repeatable steps have been identified that is documented as the standard. That is now the record to beat. Kaizen teams find and eliminate unreasonable/unsafe working conditions waste, variability, and waste (muri, mura, muda).
The term “standard” can be misunderstood as something rigid, unchanging, absolute. If it is misunderstood in this way, it becomes an obstacle to kaizen.
Take the example of a 1st tier automotive supplier of rubber products. After redesigning the assembly lines and implementing one-piece flow, it came time to create Standard Work.
The production manager who had been actively participating in kaizen resisted documenting Standard Work. When finally confronted, he explained that he didn’t want a published standard time because he wanted to keep challenging guys to beat their times and get higher production in fewer hours. What he was talking about was “the record” you had to beat to have your picture up on the “wall of fame” at the factory. Standard Work is the method used to achieve that record and must be redrawn each time the record is broken. It is how you train to beat the new record.
Machine operators in a candy factory had concerns with establishing standards settings on their production lines. Their reasoning had to do with the fact that in the past management had wanted standard followed strictly and not adjusted. This was an attempt to maintain control and keep quality at a certain level. Yet without the “Find a better way” element, it was not kaizen.
The second part of their concern had to do with the fact that now that they had freedom to change settings, they did often based on variation in the quality of the cooked candy, the recipe, etc. The fact that this level of variation exists and requires constant adjustment is a waste of processing, and demands that standards are set, followed, and improved.
It was not an easy process, but once we listened to these points and discussed how setting and improving standards could address their concerns, the kaizen efforts were back on track.
Another example is during a series of Lean Enterprise overview sessions conducted to train engineers on how to apply kaizen in their areas. We were warned by the Lean Manager “Whatever you do, don’t mention standards to engineers.” We were puzzled, and discovered that yet again there is a strong belief that standards get in the way of creativity or freedom to make a better product design or a better process.
Even in engineering “knowledge work”, whatever is the most effective current method is the standard. “Most effective” needs to be based on fact. With engineering work, so little of it is measured in terms of time or quality that this can be difficult, nonetheless, standards needs to be documented and shared so that kaizen can happen.

  1. Leah

    March 18, 2008 - 1:50 pm

    How does Toyota document their standards once they are approved and implemented? I know they use visual communication but is there a handbook that is created for reference or something of that nature?

  2. Jon Miller

    March 18, 2008 - 2:00 pm

    Hello Leah,
    To the best of my understanding, the documentation of standards at Toyota is extensive and thorough. The detection and communication of abnormalities may be very visual but there are work standards, specifications, work instructions and other forms of electronic and paper documentation.

  3. Angelica

    October 7, 2009 - 10:40 am

    Once standards are documented, how do Toyota employees follow these standards? Do they pull these instuctions everytime they perform a given task of process, or is it based on the expertise of employee when standards are reviewed?

  4. Jon Miller

    October 7, 2009 - 6:15 pm

    Hi Angelica
    Toyota employees are thoroughly trained in these standards until they can follow the repetitive operations without referring to the instructions. For irregular work they may pull the instructions, and for periodic audits by team leaders, group leaders and managers they would certainly pull the standards. Quality and safety key points may be posted visually in the work area as reminders, but the workers would rarely need to refer to the detailed work instructions. The work area itself is laid in out such a way that the parts, tools and material flow is logical and can be followed naturally. Without this foundation of workplace organization and continuous flow it is difficult to have standard work.
    The standard way of checking on adherence to standards is called kamishibai.

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