Tips for Lean Managers

Don’t Talk to Us About Toyota

By Jon Miller Published on October 28th, 2006

“Don’t talk to us about Toyota” demanded a new customer recently. Their reasoning was that Toyota’s level was unachievable for them. This client does not build cars. But they were asking for world class benchmarks and case studies of the best companies in the world. Without mentioning Toyota. What’s a kaizen consulting company to do?
The Toyota Production System has been understood (to varying degrees) for decades. But clearly there must be more than the operating system full of production cells, kanban systems and stop-the-line andons, if global manufacturers like our client mentioned above find Toyota’s success “unachievable”.
As I think about better ways to describe and talk about the business system by avoiding naming it (rhymes with bean manufacturing) this month , it’s worth repeating that success in copying TPS relies on a philosophy, a way of thinking.
It’s not what’s in the factory, it’s what’s in the minds of people. It’s a will to make things better. It’s a will to personally make things better. It’s a will to make things better that is absolutely relentless and determined. It’s a will to improve quality, customer service, safety, the work environment, cost no matter how challenging.
To say “Don’t talk to us about Toyota” is to say “We admit that don’t have the will.”
This will, this kaizen philosophy, should become a part of each individual. If we spend eight to twelve hours per day at work, this time should be used not only to add value by putting in a full day’s work and receive a paycheck but to improve oneself. Thinking, learning, developing skills and using one’s abilities to serve should be the natural outcome of working within an organization that follows the kaizen philosophy.
This is why I think it’s unfortunate that the mainstream term that describes a Toyota-style operating system comes from a term describing lower inventories, space, and other resources used. There is increasing understanding that the process of making abnormalities visible and improving quality, cost and delivery through pervasive problem solving is the true characteristic of world class organizations (as opposed to how recently the floor was painted, 5S banners hoisted, and value stream maps drawn).
Going even beyond that, having the obsessive will to solve problems, even to the point where you can not leave well enough alone and be satisfied when things are good, this is the hallmark of Toyota-style operational excellence. Can companies succeed in copying the Toyota model without addressing the roles, responsibilities, relationships and underlying mindsets within an organization? For the most part, I think not, so we will have to ask forgiveness from our client after we talk to them about Toyota.

  1. Mike Schaffner

    October 29, 2006 - 2:21 pm

    Lean, Six Sigma and the other tools that make up TPS can fix many problems quickly. Unfortunately because of this many people tend to think of them as a one-time “quick-fix” solution. In reality to be truly effective you have to adopt these concepts as a way of life. It is not just a tool for fixing manufacturing problems. It’s the way we do business – from the way we manufacture, to the way we purchase our materials, to the way we handle sales and even to the way we do our back office operations. It is only when we buy into this at the emotional level will we be able to be relentless in our use of it.

  2. John

    November 27, 2006 - 3:54 pm

    I have had clients say to me: “Our people are not Toyota’s people”. While certainly true from a literal perspective, this resigned attitude will not lead to improvement.
    Each person must ultimately answer the questions for themselves: Am I willing to take a scientific approach to the work I do? To bake learning into all aspects of my work? To inspire others by applying this learning, even in the face of uncertainty and hardship? To learn from all improvement attempts, and to see the failure to learn as the greatest failure of all? These are the elements at the heart of lean. Of course, there are usually opposing forces and dynamics in the system that make this difficult — and “lean management” can help remove these — but a so-called “lean initiative” without individuals embracing continuous learning seems to me to be of limited usefulness.

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