The Toyota Way is Doing Obvious Things

…but doing them exceptionally well. This was a comment from an economist on a TV news program in Japan I heard some while ago, that seems to have become common knowledge in Japanese business consciousness. This idea of the Toyota Way being “doing obvious things exceptionally well” (当たり前の事を徹底する) or “being thorough about the basics” has been a key phrase in Japanese books and articles on TPS lately.
In Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management, the man echoed this theme when he wrote the chapter Rationalization Means Doing What is Rational. His examples were that when he visited Ford, GM and American Motors there was nothing amazing. What they were doing at the time was more advanced than Toyota, but it was normal, or rational. What he saw were obvious things. He went on to say that if something looked impressive, it was probably not so good.
You might consider the idea of going to the gemba (factory or actual work site) to be one of these obvious things. Others have spoken about it as “management by walking around” or “management by fact”. It sounds obvious, go to the source and get the facts before making decisions.
Another obvious thing Toyota does exceptionally well is trying various things to improve processes and not giving up just because they may fail the first time. There’s an English saying “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” This is probably centuries old, and common to most cultures. Yet how much is this a part of business culture or personal management philosophies?
Respect and develop people. That’s a forehead-slapper. Who would have thought of getting better quality and productivity by treating people with respect and getting them involved? Well, Toyota got the message about this obvious thing 50 years ago and they have been thorough about it ever since.
I suspect that there is a mix of admiration and sour grapes in the expression “Doing obvious things exceptionally well” when it was first coined by the educated elite of Japanese business, who would probably prefer more complex theories of business, systems, and models that require more ivory tower time and less gemba time. After all, how many best-selling business books can you write about obvious things? How many academic careers can be built on the study of doing obvious things? Everybody already knows all of these things, don’t they?
This reminds me of a story Dr. James Womack told five years ago to the audience at the Manufacturer’s Conference, organized by the Chamber of Commerce of Kent, Washington. He told of being called to the carpet by Fujio Cho of Toyota for his comment that there were no brilliant people at Toyota. Cho said to him, “At Toyota we have brilliant processes that even average people can perform flawlessly.” Or something like that. This comment had a huge impact on my thinking.
The Toyota Way is simple to explain, difficult to follow.

2 Comments

  1. Chris Nicholls

    February 7, 2007 - 12:55 am

    Hi Jon
    Thanks for the many articles you have put in this blog recently, I always get some inspiration from them. I believe the origin of “If at first you don’t succeed then Try Try Try again” came from Robert the Bruce one time king of Scotland. He was in hiding waiting his chance to save his country watching a spider make a web. The spider kept failing but didn’t give up. A bit like continuous improvement.
    Best Regards
    Chris

  2. Jon Miller

    February 7, 2007 - 1:59 pm

    Thanks Chris. Great story. Fall down seven times, get up eight.