According to the Buddha there are three characteristics of existence:
Becoming deeply aware of these “Three Dharma Seals” (三法印) is said to bring about wisdom and an end to the cycle of rebirth and suffering.
I read an article by an ex-Toyota manager who was responsible for starting up the Tahara factory in Toyota, Japan. He wrote that “at the foundational philosophy of the true Toyota Productions System” there are 4 items:
- Respect for people
- Impermanence (諸行無常)
- Mutual existence and prosperity
- Genchi genbutsu
Items 1, 3 and 4 should be familiar to readers but what is meant by #2? This particular Buddhist expression means that “All worldly things are transitory.” The author explained that companies are living organisms that weaken if not exercised and that die if they do not change. To accept impermanence is to embrace change. He wrote, “The purpose of today is also to prepare for tomorrow.”
Where do we see evidence of this philosophy of impermanence within the Toyota Production System?
Kaizen. Many small changes are applied repeatedly to a process. There is never a perfect condition or a solution, only steps toward it. Dissatisfaction with the current condition is essential.
Success. Celebrate briefly and then do hansei (reflection) on what was done right, what was just luck and what could be done better next time. A bit of non-self (humility) and an awareness of impermanence are essential to gaining perspective on success.
Standards. All standards are temporary. Every kaizen should result in an updated standard. Documents such as standardized work sheets should be updated often.
Development of people. The best knowledge, skills and experience possessed by our people at this moment is transitory. It is not enough to get us through tomorrow. Like an organism, the learning organization must keep renewing itself or die.
The Toyota Production System. People who attempt to codify Lean or the Toyota Production System fail to grasp the impermanent nature of it. While the foundational philosophical principles of TPS may not change.. they yet may.
Heraclitus, ancient Greek and patron philosopher of this blog, is credited with saying panta rei or “Everything flows and changes”. Ironically, impermanence is a very old idea that has changed little over many millennia. Perhaps it is difficult for us to think of impermanence when we are selfish or satisfied. Fortunately these conditions too are temporary.