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.