Toyota Production System and the Three Dharma Seals

According to the Buddha there are three characteristics of existence:

  1. Impermanence
  2. Dissatisfaction
  3. Non-self

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:

  1. Respect for people
  2. Impermanence (諸行無常)
  3. Mutual existence and prosperity
  4. 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.


  1. Joseph

    August 15, 2010 - 10:53 am

    You never cease to amaze me.
    There is a theme that runs through all Lean. “Change Is The Only Constant.” This was written between 535 & 475 BC now Toyota are putting it into practice. That is a long time between drinks.
    As Lean practitioners we should be pushing on the boundaries all the time. I have a principle that if some part of Lean is difficult for the people to do or takes a great deal of resource then you are doing it wrong. The challenge is to do Lean on Lean.
    Many times Lean fails because the people doing it find it a burdon on top of the work they are doing. This should not be the case. It should make life easier. That is the challenge.
    Respect people don’t just make them work harder. Make them more efficient / effective.
    Poor Bosses make people work above a NORMAL RATE because they can not manage properly. Lean practicioners should mete out justice and respect at a good normal rate.

  2. John Santomer

    August 16, 2010 - 5:50 am

    Dear Jon,
    This is the hardest thing to accept for anyone already satisfied with current conditions. I am guilty of similar sins on few occasions due to lack of time to discover new means of addressing situations/processes. What is more shocking to me is for major stakeholders to turn their backs even if the root cause/s have been brought to light because the scalar chain should be kept “functional”…. You also pointed out recently that opportunities are not equal for each individual – even if all things considered were similar…there is such a thing called “luck”. In case Lean leaders needed to pull forward with the principles; it is now clear why the risks are high and a few were even made “sacrificial lambs” to achieve improvements the company requires. Such a practice does not need to continue. For a corporate entity to pursue Lean and Kaizen; it is difficult to avoid friction when middle management is always making things personal. It will be a totally different story if the major stake holders will just be turning the other cheek…

  3. Fred Thomas

    August 16, 2010 - 11:35 am

    I’m particularly intrigued by the concept of impermanence, which embodies the constant change all manufactures must not only cope with, but embrace and facilitate – sometimes against all odds and obstacles. Most lean practitioners know this and understand first-hand the struggle to create change, but even as we talk about getting to the root problems of manufacturing, we glaze over the root problems of change itself. Just as we need to constantly improve manufacturing processes, we have to improve the way we keep up with change.
    -Fred Thomas, Apriso

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