TPS Benchmarking

TPS & the Tao

By Jon Miller Updated on January 21st, 2018

Some time ago a woman who was studying Taoism and also reading Taiichi Ohno said, “The more I read Taiichi Ohno’s book The Toyota Production System-Beyond Large-Scale Production, the more I believe that his philosophies are based in the teaching of Tao Te Ching.”

Ever curious about things that flow, I did some research into the Tao. The Tao Te Ching is a text that is more than 2,000 years old. It is the foundation of the Taoist school of Chinese philosophy. Tao means “way” and the title of this book translates as “The Book of the Way and (its) Virtue”.

Even without opening a copy of Ohno’s book, the parallels found in Taoist philosophy and the Toyota Production System philosophy were striking.

Respect for People – TPS

If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy – Tao Te Ching

Prevention rather than correction – TPS

He who excels at resolving difficulties does so before they arise. – Tu Mu, a commentator on the Art of War, a Taoist classic

The leader as a teacher – TPS

The Master does not talk, he acts. When his work is done the people say, “Amazing! We did it all by ourselves!”
– Tao Te Ching

In Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management he talks about the “game of wits” with subordinates. This involves developing the minds of people by giving them difficult challenges, and thinking about the problem yourself so that you can give advice to the subordinate as they struggle. Ohno said to give full credit for the solution to the subordinates (student).

Harmony between man and machine / corporation and society – TPS

The Tao stresses harmony and flow and recommends a minimalist approach to leadership, whether it be as a king or a manager. There is a very Lean thought that runs throughout Taoism which says that the more one acts in harmony with the universe, the more one will achieve with less effort.

Pull, don’t push / avoid muri – TPS

Related to the harmony theme above, Taoism teaches that the harder one tries, the more resistance one creates for oneself, and the harder things become. We in the West might say “go with the flow”.

Humility as leaders – TPS

The Taoist ideal of a doctor is one who has no reputation as a healer because the area or community they serve is disease-free. This can be extended to the ideal TPS (Lean) manager who appears to do nothing because he has prevented problems rather than acting heroically to solve them.

Making things starts with making people – TPS

Taoist master Lao Tzu has been credited with the quote:

Give a person a fish, and you have fed them for a day. Teach a person how to fish and you have fed them for a lifetime.

Follow rules and principles / back to basics – TPS

The Tao teaches that when we stray from the fundamentals, we replace them with increasingly inferior ones and we deceive ourselves that these are the true values. This idea may not be unique to Taoist philosophy, but it is unique to find people who actually follow this thought.

On your next gemba walk, remind each other what happens when you stray from the fundamentals, and consider taking the 2,000 year old advice about going back to basics.

  1. Pete Abilla

    July 24, 2007 - 6:31 am

    Great insight.
    The history of chinese thought brings a wonderful context to helping us better understand The Toyota Production System. For example, Confucius, then Mencius as a response to Confucius, then to more modern Tao or Buddhism.
    As part of my training in Wing Chun Kung Fu, I get to read the Chinese Classics and am seeing a lot of parallels to Lean.

  2. mike

    July 24, 2007 - 10:28 am

    “Taoism teaches that the harder one tries, the more resistance one creates for oneself, and the harder things become.”
    er i mean why does taoism teach that the harder one tries the harder things become?

  3. Jon

    July 24, 2007 - 11:25 am

    “Why?” is a great question. I suppose it’s because the founders of Taoist thought believed it was truth.
    There is something called “wu-wei”, translated as non-action, inaction or non-doing. This is a key concept in Taoism.
    From the Tao Te Ching:
    “The Tao in its regular course does nothing and so there is nothing which it does not do.”
    Peter mentioned kung fu, and aikido is another great demonstration of the non-doing concept. Aikido practitioners move along with their opponent instead of resisting the attacks.
    Likewise in business, we force the sale, force a product to market, force an incapable process, force deliveries to be met, force people to meet performance targets, etc. as common practice.
    Stopping (non-action) overproduction and other wastes and going with the natural flow to be in harmony with things is the Way.

  4. mike

    July 24, 2007 - 2:21 pm

    I don’t believe that in doing nothing there is nothing you won’t do.
    Lean, kungfu and aikido masters don’t stand there and do nothing either, they do let the customer or opponent lead and they re-act.
    I suppose I could discuss the virtues of sometimes non-opposing and non-opposition. (The snow pine and willow tree analogy come to mind) Non-action however on the other hand just is stretching it way to far I think, especially the part claiming you can do everything by not doing anything. I don’t think you’d really do anything by doing nothing.
    Now I suppose the next blog should be “Is Seinfeld really lean?” (show about nothing).

  5. Jon

    July 24, 2007 - 2:51 pm

    During my aikido days our sensei taught that if two true aikido masters met in a fight, they would both sit down to drink tea.
    What would a quantum physicist say about “In doing nothing there is nothing you won’t do,” I wonder?

  6. Steve H

    July 24, 2007 - 4:34 pm

    I first realized the connection after reading Thomas Cleary’s “The Japanese Art of War: Understanding the Culture of Strategy” (Note this is NOT one of his translations, it is an overview of the genre.) When I read the examples of Zen literature and Cleary’s statement that they are from books that are still commonly read today I realized that Ohno’s TPS book is very much written in the same style. That is, it is written with the expectation that the student will fill in missing information and, therefore, learn partly on their own.

  7. Rob

    July 25, 2007 - 10:51 pm

    According to Wikipedia and iSixSigma: Tao is said to be unnameable and accomplishing great things through small means. There’s a clear analogy with Kaizen here. The same Japanese words Kaizen that pronounce as ‘Gai San’ in Chinese mean:
    Gai= The action to correct.
    San= This word is more related to the Taoism or Buddhism Philosophy in which give the definition as the action that ‘benefit’ the society but not to one particular individual. The quality of benefit that involve here should be sustain forever, in other words the ‘san’ is and act that truely benefit the others.

  8. Jon

    July 25, 2007 - 11:14 pm

    Hi Rob. That explanation gives a deeper understanding of the “zen” or “san” part of kaizen as a lasting benefit for society, almost a moral good. This fits with the Toyota idea of “kaizen and respect for people” being the two pillars of a Lean system.

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