Planning a Lean Journey? Take the Toyota Way

A survey of members by the Lean Enterprise Institute’s in February of 2004 found that 36% of those surveyed were in the planning or starting phase of Lean implementation. This number may be even higher if the level of requests we receive for training in Lean fundamentals, 5S, and the kaizen methodology are any indication. New Lean Champions come to us every week, looking for resources.
This is not a surprising result as the Lean Institute is a destination for those starting out in Lean, looking for books and training seminars on Lean principles. The Lean Institute is doing tremendous work in increasing awareness of Lean.
This same survey by the Lean Institute identified “backsliding to old ways” as the greatest obstacle, at 36%. It also cited senior management support as “luke warm to weak” by 35% of the respondents. No matter how good the corporate consultant, the training seminars attended or the pilot programs and 5S efforts, the lack of passion and desire for Lean at the top level will limit the success at these companies.
How are Lean practitioners to gain the interest, understanding, and ownership of the Lean (TPS) approach to managing a thriving business over the long-term? The simple answer is that some organizations will succeed at this and some will not. We advise the Lean Champion to benchmark the companies doing Lean well over the long haul, and copy their behavior. Toyota would be a good starting place.
Nearly all organizations who implement Lean principles will see gains and improvements in financial performance. Ultimately, those that view Lean just as a tool to improve stock price each quarter will not become the Toyota of their industry.
One of our consultants comes to us from a firm which was until a few years ago considered a leader in implementing Lean across its global operations. However, the strategy was one of cutting costs and ultimately lead to the relocation of much of the work offshore. The executives of this firm probably did not have a vision of providing good products and good jobs for society beyond their limited tenure at the company, much less for the next generation decades beyond their retirement. Lean was a strategy to cut costs out of the manufacturing process. Lean has not extended very far beyond the factory in this company, and it is doubtful that it will under its current direction.
According to an April 2004 Industry Week survey, 67% of manufacturers surveyed identified Lean Manufacturing as their main improvement approach. Eight months later, this number still seems too high. As we interact with the manufacturing community we see the awareness of Lean growing, but it is only superficial (tools, jargon). This is thanks mostly to the increasing number or articles in trade journals and the ‘mainstreaming’ of Lean. Do we see an increasing sign of the adoption of TPS as a business system by leaders of manufacturing firms? Sadly, not yet.
At about the same time as this IW survey last year, an excellent book came out. Jeffrey Liker wrote The Toyota Way which comes closer to doing justice to Toyota’s philosophy for action than any author has writing in English. Pick it up, read it, share it, and let it be the test of whether your organization is committed to adopting a Lean strategy.
This is not so much a plug for the book, but a plug for the Toyota way itself. There are many good management books that are suited to professionals in various fields. For the committed Lean professional, we advise reading about the Toyota way and pursuing a career with an organization that shares a passion not just for Lean but for following the TPS blueprint.