TPS Benchmarking

The Secret of TPS

By Jon Miller Published on April 6th, 2008

The secret of TPS is that the secret is in plain view. We’re not talking about secrets in the sense of the unknown, since much about the Toyota Production System has been made public by Toyota and others who study and write about it. We are often asked, “What is the secret to TPS?” and I believe the question being asked is akin to “What are we missing?” or “What are they not telling us?”
There are certainly many things that Toyota, as most any business, does not tell us about the reasons for their success. The truth about the Toyota’s success is that the secret, in the sense of the “hidden essential,” is a complex mix of luck, pluck and historical accident. This is true for the success of any individual or organization. For Toyota, the Toyota Production System is without a doubt part of this secret and as students and teachers of TPS we are often asked about the secret of TPS.
The Toyota Production System is characterized by the practice of just in time and jidoka to respectively delivery what the customer wants, when and how much they want through continuous flow and to add human intelligence to automation and processes so that they stop when a problem is detected. It’s a balance between “don’t stop” and “stop” supported by reliance on standards, stability and continuous improvement. One observer of the obvious may say the secret of TPS is their ability to respond quickly with low inventories. A slightly more observant person may say the secret of TPS is their ability to detect and correct problems quickly. These things are both in plain view.
Yet when people ask about the secret of TPS, they are thinking of the Toyota Production System not as something that is limited to the methods for organizing and managing production activity, but as something more akin to an overall business philosophy. They have taken a hard look at the many components and tools of the Toyota Production System, analyzed and reconstructed it, and have been puzzled at their lack of success. What’s the secret we are missing? What’s the piece that’s not in books, without which we will fail?
What is in plain view is hard to see, particularly when you are busy turning over rocks and looking behind sealed doors for what is hidden. Some have said that the secret of TPS is that Toyota does basic things exceptionally well. The legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi is said to have started the season by holding up the pigskin and saying “Gentlemen, this is a football.” He was a winning coach of a winning team, and he began with the most basic of basics.
This may be why it is not always so easy to teach TPS. Who wants to be taught what, upon hearing, we think we already know? As Taiichi Ohno said, TPS is practice not theory. Ohno’s word in Japanese for “practice” is “jissen” which means “application” or practice in the sense that it is practical rather than theoretical. Yet we can also understand practice to mean doing something repeatedly. Ohno did not use the word “renshuu” but he would not have argued with the need for doing things repeatedly in order to improve. Yoko Morishita is a Japanese prima ballerina who said, “If you neglect practice for one day, you can tell the difference. If you neglect practice for two days, your partner will know it. If you neglect practice for 3 days, your customers will know it.” So it is true of TPS.
In looking for the secret of TPS, the words of the poet Billy Collins in his piece Introduction to Poetry lend us some unexpected advice:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Toyota has succeeded in building an organization that consistently develops people who strive to make things better by making people better. This is best done bit by bit, day by day, through practice and reflection on how we can better serve others. We will not get the secret of TPS out by tying it to a chair and beating it with a hose. We need to walk inside it and purposefully explore with all of our senses.

  1. David Moles

    April 7, 2008 - 12:53 am

    It seems to me that the fact that the TPS works is proof enough that there’s no secret to it — at least, if there is a secret, all 300,000 Toyota employees must be in on it, and they must be awfully good at keeping their mouths shut.
    I wonder how much of this comes from the obsession in US business with trade secrets and proprietary techniques. (Personally, I blame Thomas Edison.)

  2. Brian Buck

    April 7, 2008 - 8:27 am

    I love the poem Jon. In the US, we seem to be so results-driven that we do not give TPS time to marinate. We throw it on the grill and just seer it and never let it cook all the way through. Thanks for the reminder to explore and practice relentless hansei!

  3. Pete Abilla

    April 7, 2008 - 11:43 am

    Like most great religions and traditions that are passed-down the centuries, they happen via oral transmission and, the culture, is largely unwritten. But, the form and function is followed, but is largely unwritten — until — much later.
    The same thing happened with TPS. TPS came out of rigorous experimentation, standardization, and experimentation again. Most literature and researchers didn’t pay attention to Toyota until the 80’s, when MIT and Womack highlighted Toyota and observed that something was different.
    Within the tradition, things are different too. Unlike the popular culture, fads, and industries that have sprung-up around the Toyota Production System, the language and behavior of internal Toyota people are quite different.
    For example, the term “value stream” doesn’t even exist at Toyota, yet it’s a term that is widely used in popular culture; there are even “value stream manager” positions on and in other job sites. It’s amusing.
    People substitute the tools and methods for a culture; this fallacy is akin to saying that a community of saints are charitable because they all read the same bible. No — the community behaves the way it does because of something else that they have internalized — the bible helps, but there’s something other.
    Popular culture doesn’t get this. There’s something much deeper, yet it’s incredibly simple and elegant.

  4. Venkatesh

    April 7, 2008 - 3:55 pm

    Excellent points! I am entirely amused when I hear the terms certification & lean or six sigma in the same sentence. Was Taichi Ohno an SME certified Lean thinker?!
    The fact is that the popular culture is result oriented only, they have lost sight of the system as a whole; CEO’s cannot think beyond local optimization. Toyota’s system of home grown scientists on the floor takes the whole system’s optimization into consideration.

  5. Stan Heard

    April 9, 2008 - 3:58 am

    Maybe what is being overlooked is the incredible “common sense” of Taichi Ohno. It seems he had an willingness to face reality and study it that most managers today lack.
    I enjoy this site.

  6. Jamie Mallon

    April 9, 2008 - 8:29 am

    Jon, great post. We work with Toyota and other firms looking to implement TPS in one form or another. Interestingly, many who try to make lasting change (in they way they work) do not spend enough time on developing people – they may introduce training sessions for leaders who are then charged with rolling that message down to the shop floor. The key in any change effort is that it requires a sustained effort of education, coaching, reinforcement and most importantly “jissen” practical application.

  7. Kuldeep Tyagi

    October 6, 2009 - 10:25 am

    hai all!
    Really interesting, what we all are discussing about success of toyota, do we ever analysed about ourselves, always thinking about other’s philosophy, we all learned a lot, now its time to put the learning in implementing, and one more not give up continious thinking for improvement about all existing systems.

  8. Walter

    December 14, 2009 - 11:31 am

    i have had the opportunity to work with Toyota for 4 years and I must say the secret many talk about is just a system that continues to move forward on all levels, never satisfied with any level they may reach. The companies today want lean but don’t want to be lean, so they fight to stay the same as the world changes around them. My experience there is one of finding out that you have the winning tickets to the lottery but no one believes you.

  9. George

    December 15, 2009 - 11:27 am

    Indeed, the discussion is touching on the most sensitive and probably most discussed and debated aspect of Lean: What are we missing?
    I will add just a couple of things to the great comments you all put into this discussion. First of all, as probably most people coming back from the 1st trip to Toyota in Japan felt – and not visiting a North American facility before – I came back convinced that “We will never be able to do it in NA; we are just different and the difference works against us in this aspect.”
    Boy, how wrong I was! Few months later I visited Toyota in Cambridge, Ontario, a NA copy of the plant I had visited in Japan – Toyota Kyushu -. It was only one Japanese executive in the whole facility – the second in command after the President -. Not only that they would produce on the same production line the same models as they did in Kyushu; there was actually no difference – or at least I was not able to see it – in a North American Toyota facility comparing to a Japanese one. That confused me completely. How is that possible? Again, what are we missing? For someone that thought was on his way to understand the system was a big step back as I realised how wrong I was when I thought we can’t perform at the same level.
    Few months later the answer came in a matter of minutes! My search ended when a Toyota trainer put the very first slide up and asked: “What do you think is this?” It was a stylish logo that we all had guesses but nobody really got it. The answer came as a blessing for all my efforts to understand what we were missing: “It’s a C and a J that’s joined together, Canadian and Japanese people and cultures working together to create a unique and even stronger TMMC culture.”
    Then I could move on with my life; that was what was missing. Toyota never thought the way I did – i.e. “it will never work in NA as we are different…” -. They didn’t need to change anyone or implement any new culture in the sense I was thinking at it. They wanted to create a Toyota “culture” that would not make any difference where the people were born or raised; it was the same everywhere Toyota was present, regardless of the country, continent or what cars were produced in the facility. I read in another blog that GM learned a lot from the NUMMI cooperation with Toyota. Yes, process wise we learned a lot in NA. We missed the soft but the most important side of it: the PEOPLE. That is what I believe we missed and it will take us some time to recover. Once we understand this simple “secret”, we will be on our way.
    Happy Holidays to you all!
    [email protected]

  10. E. Kobayashi

    April 1, 2010 - 12:08 am

    I am glad to inform you of the publication of my new book about Toyota Production System.
    The book is titled “The truth about Toyota and TPS” and can be found at the following link:
    E. Kobayashi.

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