Lean Office

A Bureaucracy Which Enables Kaizen

By Jon Miller Updated on May 16th, 2017

The organizational characteristics of the Toyota Production System have been described as the combination of rigid and scripted rules with a high degree of flexibility to respond and change as needed. Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. These two opposing characteristics are not often found existing together as a high functioning organizational model. Toyota has done this better than most.
Andrew N. Blumenthal, the Director of Enterprise Architecture and Strategic Planning for the United States Coast Guard, discusses the question of bureacracy and its impact on EA (enterprise architecture) on his blog User-Centric Enterprise Architecture. He concludes that bureaucracy, which is a mechanistic structure designed to enable an organization to function, can create silos within organizations which have the opposite of the intended effect.
Enterprise architecture is described as valuing people as assets and unleashing human creativity. This sounds a lot like Lean thinking, as does this description of how it does this, much like target, image, PDCA:

How does EA do this? By capturing and analyzing the as-is environment, and formulating a to-be environment and transition plan, EA not only shows the organization where its gaps, redundancies and inefficiencies are, but also facilitates a proactive solution to resolving them.

Another way to think about the Toyota Production System is “a bureaucracy which enables kaizen”. Standardized work routines that workers must follow, A3 forms that managers must mill out, exact delivery routes and delivery windows for their logistics systems, demanding documentation and quality checks. Not a lot is left up to chance, but when chance strikes, there is a clear understanding of how to respond to abnormalities and make improvements.
An inherent part of the bureaucracy of Toyota is the almost mechanistic way of identifying problems, analyzing them, finding countermeasures, and checking their effectiveness. The dissatisfaction with the status quo and requirement to do kaizen that is part of the corporate philosophy has in many ways been built into what we call “the bureaucracy which enables kaizen”.
If the robot is the image of a worker trapped in a classic bureaucracy, a robot with advanced AI and fuzzy logic may be the image of a worker within a bureaucracy which enables kaizen. People are not robots, and it is dehumanizing to even entertain this notion. Yet we build and sustain organizations that cause us to think this way.
Poorly designed organizations and processes cause good people to perform poorly. We need more people like Andrew N. Blumenthal to be the architects of enterprises with bureaucracies which enable kaizen.

  1. Andy Blumenthal

    August 24, 2007 - 5:57 pm

    I like the way you present Toyota as a bureaucracy that enables kaizen. Very cool. Also, thanks for mentioning my post. -Andy

  2. Bas Timmermans

    November 28, 2007 - 12:23 pm

    Hello Jon,
    I came across an HBR-article from 2005 that compares the Toyota Production System with the way Linux is developed. I found it a well written article. I wonder what your view is on this. Maybe you can discuss it on your blog.
    The link is http://www.fcee.lisboa.ucp.pt/resources/documents/Collaboration_Rules.pdf
    Looking forward to your respons, Bas

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