TPS Benchmarking

Not Enough “Toyota Way” in Factory Air?

By Jon Miller Published on February 16th, 2007

There’s a good article over at the New York Times on February 15, 2007 titled The ‘Toyota Way’ Is Translated for a New Generation of Foreign Managers. It’s not about putting Jeffrey Liker’s book The Toyota Way into other languages, it’s about Toyota taking a more intentional approach to teaching the thinking behind the Toyota Production System to its people.
Until recently, Toyota people spoke of the Toyota Way as something that was best learned by living it while working at Toyota. It was “in the air”, so to speak. Reasons I heard for not writing it down included the belief that it was best learned by doing, and that if it was written people would do only what was written and not change it. I suspect it was actually because until recently there was no need.
Now that’s changed. There’s only so much “Toyota Way particles” to go around, and with so many factories being built and staffed around the world, the factory air is running thin of the stuff.
The Toyota Institute in Japan has been established to teach the values that lead to the behaviors that make Toyota the most successful manufacturing company in the world. Listed in the article, these include:
– mutual ownership of problems
– genchi gembutsu
– kaizen mind
– making problems visible
– open offices
These are not secrets. In fact a lot has been written about these things, sometimes in these pages. According to the article, Toyota has not written these things down prior to 2001, however. Much of this is obvious it is just a question of doing the obvious exceptionally well.
“Before, when everyone was Japanese, we didn’t have to make these things explicit,” Mr. Konishi said. “Now we have to set the Toyota Way down on paper and teach it.”
Mr. Konishi is the General Manager in charge of the Toyota Institute. He doesn’t explain why they didn’t need to make the Toyota Way explicit in the old days. I don’t think it has anything to do with being Japanese, but quite a bit can be lost in translation, and the Japanese education system is not famous for being good at teaching English.
There seems to be a bit of PR spin at work here with Toyota putting the blame for its recent quality problems and recalls on foreign workers in whom Toyota has failed to instill the philosophy of building in quality. Teaching the Toyota Way will help, but doing some serious hansei on their design process may also be needed.
The true challenge for Toyota will not be training new overseas employees in the Toyota Way, but in managing the turnover of these people in a job market that increasingly values Toyota Production System training and expertise.

  1. Kim Smith

    February 17, 2007 - 8:10 am

    Great timing on this posting – I am here writing a paper for my MBA program on the NY Times article that you reference. I am glad there is someone else out there that sees through the blame game going on here. This is not simply a training issue or the fault of poor workers.
    Toyota has grown too fast and have not put the proper systems and programs in place to teach and instill their core values and principles across their growing global organization.
    One principle in lean, derived from the TPS is that people don’t cause mistakes and poor quality – processes do. Toyota needs to a take a good took at their current quality, improvement and training processes outside of Japan and make some fundamental improvments.
    Thanks for your insight!

  2. robert thompson

    February 18, 2007 - 7:12 am

    There are a number of globalization hurdles Toyota has to overcome. Obviously, it should make no different where Toyota vehicles are made from quality perspective, however the Japanese cooperation of manufacturers, suppliers, distributors and banks in closely-knit groups (keiretsu) and big firm shushin koyo makes Japan unique as a nation. Nevertheless, despite record sales, Toyota’s quality reputation has been hit by a series of recalls that you could blame on its rush to cut costs. Here in the UK we are not bad at making cars: Toyota’s plant in Derbyshire and the Nissan plant in Sunderland are among the most efficient in Europe – although Nissan did report a 23% slump in profits yesterday for the last quarter of 2006, blaming the poor results on rising commodity costs, fierce competition and stagnant sales. Part of the problem Toyota may face in the US could stem from strict house agreements with unions and employee costs, eg healthcare, has risen faster than inflation for many years.
    Rob (lean) (six sigma)

  3. Jon Miller

    February 18, 2007 - 12:38 pm

    Good point Rob.
    Toyota has done a remarkable job of becoming what Peter Senge calls a “learning organization” where values and processes for transferring these values persist.
    Now they are struggling, but these times will test their mettle. If Toyota can rapidly teach the majority of their people how to work within a learning organization, they will be truly a great firm.

  4. Mark Graban

    February 18, 2007 - 4:28 pm

    Is it Toyota blaming the foreign workforce (including managers) or realizing that the process needs improving, partly through additional training?

  5. Jon Miller

    February 18, 2007 - 5:50 pm

    Good question Mark. From the article:
    “If Toyota can’t infuse its philosophy into its workers, these quality problems will keep happening,” said Hirofumi Yokoi, a former Toyota accountant who is now an auto analyst at CSM Worldwide in Tokyo. “The institute was founded because Toyota is afraid of growing too fast and losing control. It’s still too early to know if it will work.”
    In the last decade, as Toyota has expanded into a vast international group, it has often exported its manufacturing and management methods to 200,000 workers at 27 plants overseas without always taking the time to explain the ideas behind them, analysts and executives say.
    Worse, some executives like Mr. Konishi complain of managers at Toyota factories who have not adhered to some of the company’s most basic creeds, like allowing workers to stop factory lines when they spot defects.
    Sounds a bit blamey, but they are doing something about it.
    As with the issue of recalls, the real question is “Why did Toyota get itself into this situation?” In other words, what is the root cause?
    The lack of understanding of the Toyota Way is a symptom. The lack of a formal training in Toyota Way is another symptom. What is the misconception in the minds of Toyota leadership that led to this?

  6. Mark Graban

    February 18, 2007 - 6:06 pm

    “What is the misconception in the minds of Toyota leadership that led to this?”
    Because they are human.

  7. Jon Miller

    February 19, 2007 - 8:10 am

    Can’t kaizen that. As the Toyota people would say, “You have not understood the current condition deeply enough. Please try harder.”

  8. Sam G

    May 6, 2007 - 9:00 pm

    Through kaizen everyone moves towards excellence. where new innovations comes out for strengthening the organisations as well as nations.

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