The Lean System is Making the Most of What You've Got

If I had a dollar bill for every time someone said to me “This is not Japan” or “We don’t build automobiles” or “We don’t make the same thing over and over again like Toyota” then I would have a lot of dollar bills. What people are objecting to in these remarks is not the overall idea of the Toyota Production System or its details but rather a protest that the characteristics and context of their business is different if not unique, and does not easily lend itself to the application of a lean system. Those of us who make a living helping people build Toyota-like operating systems tend to dismiss these charges, but they are valid. The lean system is not about copying Toyota as closely as possible; it is about making the most of what you’ve got.
So the question becomes “what have we got?” This is a very broad question but we can learn how to answer it by reflecting on the characteristics and conditions that faced Toyota when they were building their world class production system. In The Birth of Lean, chapter IV, from the paper Toyota production system and Kanban system – materialization of just-in-time and respect-for-human system by Y. Sugimori, K. Kusunoki, F. Cho and S. Uchikawa, the authors share eleven characteristics of “what Toyota had”, namely the context for the development of the Toyota Production System.
Natural environment
1) The most distinctive feature of Japan is its lack of natural resources
People and society
2) Group consciousness, desire to improve, diligence
3) High degree of ability resulting from higher education
4) Centering their daily lives around work
Corporate customs
5) Lifetime employment system
6) Company labor unions
7) Little discrimination between shop workers and white collar workers
8) Chance of promotion of workers to managerial positions
The automotive industry and its challenges
9) Mass production, with small losses having a large overall effect
10) Many models, numerous variations, large fluctuations in demand
11) Model changes every few years requiring major redesign efforts
Taken as a whole, these 11 characteristics made the environment in which Toyota and its famous production system rather unique. But no single one of these characteristics are unique. Our ability to change the natural environment, industry and the people and society are limited. Corporate customs may not be totally within the control of the management. In some cases we may be much better off than Toyota was 50 years ago when they started developing their system. Like anything worth doing, the lean system requires making the most of what we’ve got.

3 Comments

  1. David Moles

    May 4, 2009 - 7:46 am

    (1) is interesting. I guess it’s still technically true, but it seems to capture a particular historical moment more than an eternal truth. (Or maybe it *is* an eternal truth, and we should *all* consider lack of natural resources a distinctive feature of life on Earth.)

  2. Isaac D. Curtis

    May 4, 2009 - 8:35 am

    What the United States has:
    Natural Environment
    1.The most distinctive feature of the United States is its abundance of natural resources
    People and Society
    2.Individual Consciousness, desire to expand one’s personal sphere, vision
    3.High degree of creativity resulting from acceptance of change- moving forward
    4.Daily lives are centered around entertainment/gaming/media
    Corporate Customs
    5. Temporary employment in every industry
    6. Labor unions constantly at war with management
    7. Sharp divide between shop workers and white collar workers
    8. Chance of promotion of workers to managerial positions, but also the desire to make a quick dollar, so the less time involved in this process the better
    Industry and its challenges
    9. Mass Production, with a desire to sell whether or not product is needed by society
    10.No clear vision as to what needs to be produced
    11.Similar products, packaged differently

  3. sharma

    June 22, 2009 - 3:42 am

    Issac’s comments although hilarious are somewhat true.
    According to me :
    Japan = continous improvement
    America = quantum improvement(completely new technology improves
    productivity and profits)
    America = creates technologies
    Japan = optimizes it
    Japan = no resources less population
    America = all resources, huge market(high per capita consumption
    for everything)
    real spirit of free enterprise!
    Japan = harmony
    America = big brother
    Thanks!
    Sharma