Checking the Plan: Toyota Way 2001

Interesting articles of information continue to surface as the spring cleaning progresses at the Gemba office. Today’s find was a page from an interview with Fujio Cho. As the CEO of Toyota he had summarized the the desired ways of thinking and acting for Toyota employees globally in what is called Toyota Way 2001. This came at a time when the company was just beginning to experience an acceleration in their global expansion and growth.

Built around the two core elements of continuous improvement and respect for people, it specified the importance of kaizen, genchi genbutsu, the development of people, teamwork and challenge.

As Chairman a few years ago Cho reflected on how Toyota’s humble beginnings led to a focus on people development. Below is my translation from the Japanese:

After the war Toyota had neither money nor technology nor even adequate production equipment so our senpai had to use their wits, and that is how the Toyota Production System developed. At the same time, since manufacturing is done by people, they devoted earnest efforts towards to developing people.

Senpai is a Japanese term that applies to anyone who is ahead of you in seniority or years, whether it be on a sports team, ahead in school, or an old-timer at the factory. There is no easy translation, though “senior” comes close. One’s senpai can be a 16 year old if you are a 15 year old joining a judo club. There is an expectation that senpai will take care of and teach their juniors (kohai) the unwritten rules and whatever they need to know to get along and get ahead. In some ways like a fraternity or family, there is a camaraderie and respect that persists after leaving the organization, not unlike the bond between men and women in the service. We can say that to some degree this senpai-kohai mentoring was an enabler within Japanese culture for the development of people at Toyota.

The Toyota Way 2001 and efforts to formalize, explain and standardize the development of people and their ways of thinking and acting was a great plan. Nearly ten years of doing, it’s time for a big “check”. How has Toyota fared with this plan? That is not for us to speculate, but for the leadership of Toyota to check and act upon, to correct course where their aims were not fully met. I am in no position to give advice, but any adjusted plan should be called Toyota 2010 or perhaps Toyota 2011. The exact year is not important, but continuity is. Toyota Way 2001 was Fujio Cho’s way of making an explicit connection between his senpai and the global team members of his day. It was his way of saying thanks. That tradition should be continued.

What’s Toyota do now that they have money, technology, equipment and a fully developed Toyota Production System? Why, use their wits to overcome today’s big problems while developing people, of course! From humble beginnings, Toyota has found themselves at the beginning of a humbling. Rather than turning the page taken from Cho and his senpai, Akio Toyoda would do well to take pencil to that page, correct, add, annotate and learn from today’s failures to build on the successes of the past.