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Review of The Elegant Solution by Matthew E. May

By Jon Miller Published on April 11th, 2007

The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation by Matthew E. May is a book about many good ideas. It adds relevant and interesting accounts of the author’s eight years working closely alongside Toyota people. The book offers a good balance of Toyota-isms examined in a new light, and favorites such as hansei, genchi genbutsu, nemawashi and obeya all make appearances. I can’t argue with the message of chapters like “Make Kaizen Mandatory” or “Keep It Lean.”
In the “Backstory” chapter some more background into the origin and purpose of the University of Toyota would have been great so we could understand the context for the educational program that was University of Toyota. I appreciate that the author is a fellow consultant who is interested in using this book to promote his consulting business through his writing. The author in fact ends the book with the two words “call me.” I have never seen that before. Yet as fellow a student and teacher of Toyota principles, I somehow expected a bit more humility:
“I moved from novice to journeyman to expert. I got to design and deliver the key homegrown University of Toyota programs. I built the original education now used by Toyota associates all over the world to grasp The Toyota Way.”
And after a short list of blue chip companies the author states: “Toyota sent me to work with those organizations.”
Getting past the first ten pages, the content is very good, but hardly new. I have a stack of Japanese books a foot high on my desk at home that all expose the same ideas and tell similar stories. Matthew May does a good job of livening up these Toyota-ism in many cases through his experiences with companies helped by the University of Toyota.
I was very curious to see how “innovation” fit in with what I know about Toyota. Innovation is a huge business buzzword, not one commonly associated with Toyota. Michael Tracy and Fred Wiersema talk about operational excellence, customer intimacy and product leadership in The Discipline of Market Leaders. Arguably Toyota is known for the former (operational excellence) due to their production system and management philosophy. They have not traditionally been known than the latter two disciplines, which are closer to innovation.
While it’s not inaccurate to say that kaizen helps Toyota innovate, the positioning of this as an innovation book about Toyota makes me wonder if there is a “Toyota’s Formula for the Millionaire Mind” or “Toyota’s Little Red Book of Sales” being written by someone at this moment.
The book is not squarely in the innovation camp, nor squarely in the kaizen camp. The books talks about innovation, but it describes kaizen in many cases. Perhaps we are entering a phase where kaizen and Lean manufacturing will be called “process innovation” or “service innovation” and there’s nothing at all wrong with that.
When the book talks about kaizen, it carries the notion of creativity and craft as embodied in Toyota values into the territory of “work as art” which is a bit alien for most of us. I’m certainly willing to be led there, but the book didn’t do that for me, and I’ve already drunk the Kool-aid.
Another interesting idea that is introduced but not developed fully is “dig your own job.” Dig your own job – what does this mean? Dig as in dig a hole or dig as a hipster digs something? Create or design your own job? Have fun at what you do? Do Toyota people dig their own job? What’s the equivalent phrase in Japanese? 「自分の仕事は自分で掘れ」? I am genuinely curious.
The author reframes muri, mura, muda as “overload, inconsistency, waste” which sound better than “overburden, variability, waste” as they are often stated. Kudos on the good word choices. The list of wastes is rather disappointing, with a few of the canonical 7 missing, and some redundancies in the others listed (hardly elegant).
Chapter 14 is a great testament to the value of using a consultant to bring a fresh approach and an outside viewpoint to accomplish the difficult task of helping people see the obvious. It tells the story of 5 hours at the LAPD with the author others from Toyota leading a problem solving session. The book would have been more powerful in my opinion if it had been written around this and other stories of problem solving using by the University of Toyota throughout the entire book.
In the afterword “Words of Encouragement” the author states:
“All change demands knowledge. Meaningful change – innovation – demands profound knowledge. Some of that I’ve tried to impart in this book through the wisdom of Toyota.”
Elegance is a fancy word for simple. Profound is a complex word for deep. Deep knowledge doesn’t come from a book, but from action and reflection. It requires customer focus, genchi genbutsu, a deep understanding of the current condition. On the final page, the author makes the kaizen classic “get your hands dirty” sound a lot more white collar by saying:
“Finally, you’ll accept the singular guiding insight to innovation: To find the elegant solution, you must be inelegant.
I still say get your hands dirty.

  1. Pete Abilla

    April 11, 2007 - 9:36 pm

    I have been studying recently the current literature on product development and, particularly, anthropological approaches to product design.
    Toyota is highly innovative in their approach to product development. They have been doing what P&G is *just* now starting to do — they go and see and watch people do stuff. In product circles, this is called ethnography; Toyota has been doing this for much longer than most companies. You mention it and it’s known as Genchi Genbutsu.
    Read this article, where Chief Engineer Yokoya drove the Sienna 53,000 miles just to learn what it was like to drive that van from the customer’s perspective. Stepping in the customer’s shoes provided insight into the eventual redesign of the vehicle and insights into who the real customer is of the van — not the mother or father, but the children. Fascinating stuff.

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