Tips for Lean Managers

Intuition, Information and the Toyota Production System

By Jon Miller Published on July 1st, 2007

There are quite a few things that are counterintuitive about the Lean management system known as TPS. They are all fairly simple things, but hard to do since they feel wrong to people who have not been swimming in the waters of TPS for years.
In fact, the whole TPS house is built out of counterintuitive (which is to say non-traditional) behaviors. The sketch below is a quick approximation of the TPS house.
Pillar #1: Jidoka. Stopping to fix problems is faster, cheaper, better than keeping the process running, to fix the defects later (or more often than not, keep running and not fix). There is more to jidoka than meets the eye, from the stand-point of built in quality. There is an emphasis on in-process quality checks (many of them) instead of end-of-line checks. There is the whole mentality of zero defects that is needed, starting with a blame-free culture that rewards rather than punishes exposing problems, as well as a system to back it up. It is not so hard to understand why jidoka is counterintuitive when you consider this.
Pillar #2: Just in time. One at a time is faster, cheaper, better than batch processing. And yet we batch. Just the other day I witnessed someone making egg & cheese croissant sandwiches at Phoenix airport, in a batch. About twenty croissants, one slice of cheese at a a time, then the egg… My vantage point: a long queue waiting for coffee while others in the line waited for their sandwiches. Why did he do this? Probably because the information he was given was to “make twenty sandwiches” and not when the first one was needed, or how often (takt time).
You wouldn’t push a rope if you wanted to make it move, but this is exactly what most systems force us to do. Why is it so counterintuitive to pull and comfortable to push? Push requires so much less information, for one thing. You can push right now. Just do some work, whether it is needed or not. That’s push. Pull, on the other hand, requires you to know who your customer is and to listen to them.
The cornerstone of kaizen, or continuous improvement, may seem intuitive at first glance. The idea of PDCA and the scientific method, while not followed as closely as they should be, are quite logical. Many if not most people believe in continuous improvement of one sort or another.
But the focus of kaizen on true root cause countermeasures through the 5 why process, as well as the insistence on ending each kaizen with a combination of celebration and dissatisfaction is deeply counterintuitive to most who want to declare victory and move on after corrective action has been taken at the superficial level. Here again, it is harder to do kaizen because it takes more information to do it properly at the root cause level, and with an understand of just how much better things can be (ideal).
Then there is the whole notion of educating, empowering and requiring everyone to solve problems, rather than simply entrusting this to a small group of experts, which can strike many as going against the grain. We have been taught to believe that heroes solve problems, and that fire-fighting is noble.
Traditionally, management attention goes toward the solving of big problems, rather than solving of small problems. At Toyota, leaders view problem solving at all levels as a key activity both in terms of improving safety, quality, deliver, cost and morale as well as developing people’s skills.
The TPS views people as assets rather than liabilities. People increase in value as you educate them, and as they gain experience and capability. Education is giving people information, while training is giving people the opportunity to use this information to build a skill. Everyone solving small problems every day in a standardize way is Lean management.
The cornerstone of Standard Work can be difficult for people because we are so used to standards being things that don’t change. Things that don’t change constrict us. In the Toyota Production System standards exist to be changed. In fact Standard Work which does not change is a sign that kaizen is not being done. Standards don’t limit creativity, but in fact unleash it. Standard Work is simply information, a measure against which we can view a process in order to look for further improvements.
The strongest protest to this idea typically comes from knowledge workers or professionals who need to be creative in their work of designing new things or solving new problems. Design engineers are a classic example. But what if you standardized the fasteners, and used your creativity instead for finding solutions to customer problems, rather than being creative in selecting bolts from a catalog? Albert Einstein said, “Never memorize something that you can look up.” We might have also say, “Never recreate something you can look up.” You just need the information – knowing where to look.
Or in healthcare terms, what if evidence-based, scientifically proven treatments could be used as a standard, so that the years of medical training and experience could be used to better diagnose and treat those parts of the illness that are unique to the patient? Standards allow you to make fewer decisions, and the fewer decisions you need to make the easier it is for these decisions to be the really important ones.
Most people resist standards because of a perceived or actual unfairness with the system that imposes the standard on people. The TPS standard is counterintuitive to the experience of most in that it is not only fair but empowering. This is because the process is observed and documented based on facts rather than imagined, calculated or engineered standards. The information you gather about the process enables Standard Work.
The foundation of heijunka or production smoothing aims to produce an average mix and average volume of products rather than having the schedule swing up and down. From a production standpoint this may seem rather obvious. A smoother schedule means being able to set up and run the same thing for weeks rather than needing to constantly change. But this is not heijunka. The idea of averaging mix and volume both requires small lot production and very frequent changeovers. This requires knowing what you need to deliver, in what quantity and sequence, as early as possible.
Of course it is much easier to just go ahead an take the order without complete information. Why delay the sale? From a leadership standpoint it is too often counterintuitive to instruct customers or star salesmen to change their behavior in ways that help production deliver the products and services more smoothly, and therefore provide it better, faster and cheaper. It is easier to say “yes” to almost any order and let operations figure out how to handle it. Once again, it take discipline to get the information you need before starting work.
If Lean management all made sense and was intuitive, we would all be doing TPS already. There’s something about the Lean management system, built out of counterintuitive principles, that makes it hard for many people to adopt these behaviors. Some say that learning TPS requires unlearning the traditional management system you already know. I’m not so sure. Another way of thinking about this is that TPS requires learning to seek more information about the work you are about to do and to deepen your understanding of what needs to be done, for whom and when. We need to slow down and get it right the first time.
The whole notion of “intuitive” is rather anti-Lean. It’s not scientific. When something is intuitive, a thought or understanding is obtained through instinct, impression, or sense rather than explicit observation or reasoning. It is nearly the very opposite of the scientific method. Yet intuition is a very valid way of knowing and understanding for many non-complex systems. If intuition is knowing from within, we simply need more information before we can intuit correctly and act upon a system as complex as Lean management.

  1. Michelle

    July 2, 2007 - 1:36 pm

    Excellent post! Thank you.

  2. Toyota Fan's Club

    July 2, 2007 - 9:31 pm

    We all know that Toyota the maker of quality product such as toyota clutch kit continue in producing quality car products for the car lovers need. That is why Toyota is now leading the car industry.

  3. Jacqueline Wilson

    July 5, 2007 - 5:15 am

    That was excellent way of breaking it down!

  4. mark

    October 18, 2007 - 8:52 pm

    I have been tasked to re-engineer our quality system at an aerospace machine shop. I am researching my best approach and your post is very helpful. Thanks.

  5. Jon Miller

    October 21, 2007 - 9:24 pm

    You are welcome. Aerospace machine shops have a wealth of opportunities for pokayoke, in-process checks, standard work, statistical process control, 5 why / problem solving circles and other practical means of building in quality.

  6. Harish

    February 8, 2008 - 3:28 am

    I read this only recently. But excellent post.
    Thank you for valuable and sensible posts.

  7. Kenneth

    April 12, 2008 - 3:29 am

    Excellent post. Been studying the TPS house in detail. In some of the articles, there is a stability element at the base of the house. This level serve as the foundation to support the 2 pillars.
    For instance, Jidoka stands for automatic in Jap. It is common to see operators standing beside fully automatic machines doing quality checks and awaiting “just in case” stoppages. This is big waste from operation instability.
    I have this group of fully automatic machines in my plant that require constant monitoring. This result in poor man- machine ratio and difficulty in standardize work. We focus on stability which surfaces the problem that we swept under the carpet. After 2 weeks of Gemba and fixing the problems mentality, we finally unchained the operators from the machines and able to perform uninterrupted standardize work. This result in 4 times the productivity, better quality performances and production output.

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