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Kaizen Goes Kaput? Not So Fast

By Jon Miller Updated on May 21st, 2017

In recent weeks there have been many articles purporting to put the finger on the cause for Toyota’s quality troubles. Most of them are solution-jumping and not worthy of further exposure or response. I felt compelled to address Darius Mehri’s article in the Wall Street Journal titled Kaizen Goes Kaput because I read Darius Mehri’s book Notes from Toyota-land: An American Engineer in Japan and exchanged opinions with him at some length by phone and e-mail. The unique personal experience, cross-cultural insights and overall negative tone concerning kaizen and TPS all made for very intriguing reading. Darius was good enough to provide an interview on this blog. The last we spoke a few years ago Darius had entered a program at Berkeley and was conducting a critical study of lean work. Unfortunately there is little evidence in the WSJ article that he has advanced his understanding of lean or the Toyota Production System.

Darius writes that he is not surprised by Toyota’s recent quality problems:

I worked as a research and design engineer in the engine department for a Toyota subsidiary in Japan for over three years in the late 1990s, and observed first-hand the flaws in the vaunted Toyota Production System and kaizen

These flaws included an overemphasis on market share-driven kaizen activity, the narrow use of kaizen mainly to tweak product performance, and a high-pressure workplace.

Likewise, the Toyota Production System involved a punishing amount of work for its employees and parts suppliers. Projects required meeting strict design and quality goals with unyielding deadlines. It was not unusual for engineers to put in 16-hour days for several months.

Darius may be surprised to learn that many consultants, engineers, managers, software developers, small business owners, regional managers, and sales people at American companies regularly put in 16 hour days. While I am not saying this is right, it is a reality in today’s business world. Do the evils of overwork have an effect on the quality of design and service? Most likely. But this has nothing to do with the kaizen or the Toyota Production System, either in Japan or the United States. Unyielding deadlines for meeting quality and design goals are also irrelevant to the Toyota Production System, just a factor many of us deal with in today’s competitive marketplace.

Overwork was common at most Japanese companies at that time, and from what I understand this has not changed. This is one of the main reasons for quality problems in Japanese products.

The quality of Japanese products has been superior for the past three decades during which overwork became a health issue for Japanese workers. I am not a statistician, but there is neither correlation nor causation here. While systemic overwork is abhorrent, Darius is simply revisiting his justifiable criticism of the high pressure work environment in the Japanese automotive industry in the 1990s, making a broad statement which cannot be applied to the latest series of recalls in particular. Furthermore, the Toyota Production System by definition aims to reduce variation, overburden and waste. If the design engineering way of working experienced by Darius Mehri at the Toyota supplier was rife with overwork, by definition it was neither “lean” nor a true instance of the Toyota way.

A Japanese business magazine reported in July of 2006 on the burdens placed on the design process across the Toyota supply chain as the result of the aggressive cost reduction effort across the supply chain. The loss of seasoned design engineers to retirement, the rapid adoption of computer-based design techniques with insufficient maturity in these tools by designers, the thinning out of design engineering support as Toyota rapidly expanded globally, and the strong push to achieve significant cost reductions through design changes were some of the causes described. These problems within the last decade that would seem to have had a greater impact on Toyota’s latest quality problem than overwork.

Darius demonstrates how little he learned about the spirit of continuous improvement, the teaching of Dr. Deming and the Toyota Production System during his working time at a Toyota subsidiary when he calls for Toyota to find and punish the people who are to blame:

In order to recapture consumer confidence, Toyota must release all the information about the process that led to the design flaws and punish those who may have hidden the problems from the public

Unless Toyota abandons its principles, that is not going to happen. Dr. Deming taught us that it is always the system that is to blame. If people hid problems, the system that allowed this must be fixed.

Clearly the Toyota Production System is not perfect, and people working at Toyota are always the first to tell you “It doesn’t work like that” when asked if The PS experience at Toyota is just as it is in the books. We are, after all, human. Toyota is committed to continuous improvement – kaizen. This means building better systems. The only lesson here is that Kaizen only goes “kaput” when you take the focus away from trying to improve the system.

Sometimes we need to slow things down to keep them going. This was true for Toyota pushing for market share growth. Ironically, this is also at the heart of this particular defect in Toyota’s cars. The question of “What went wrong at the world’s greatest manufacturer?” also deserves slow, deep, thorough reflection and discussion instead of quick and confident conclusions.

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