Where Excellence Fears to Tread

In the latest e-letter from Lean Enterprise Institute CEO John Shook titled Toyota and Sudden Acceleration: Facts from the NASA Report, John draws a few deeper lessons about the Toyota Way and the Toyota Production System by reflecting on NASA’s findings and how Toyota interacted with the public through the unintended acceleration problem. Here are 3 insights that I found particularly quotable:

Toyota is a company with a special relationship with problems. The essence of the Toyota Way is commitment with respect: commitment to excellence and continuous improvement with respect for people and truth. Toyota’s profound contribution to the pursuit of excellence is a wholesale commitment to exposing and dealing with problems.

We should all court problems in the hopes of developing such a special relationship with them. But John Shook believes Toyota is fully accountable how they handled the problem and the resulting customer perception:

With problems large or small, it’s not the problem that matters; it’s how you respond to it. And Toyota didn’t respond well in the early days of its crisis. The company will pay a huge price for that for years to come.

This is a good reminder that the measure of an individual, a team or its leader is not how you stumble, it’s how you recover.

Toyota’s aspirational practices remain exemplary and serve brilliantly as a north star for any individual or organizations seeking similar levels of excellence. But, true excellence doesn’t stop at the end of the assembly line or confine itself to the engineer’s lab or the executive suite. Excellence extends everywhere.

This reminds us that even while extending excellence everywhere is part of the stated aim and the company culture at Toyota, they are also human and fall short sometimes. In this case the failing was more human than technical, as is often the case. Some including myself have speculated that Toyota may have developed blind spots in its commitment to excellence during the pursuit of aggressive growth and cost reduction during the last decade. This is a question of the priorities set by leadership. Excellence fears to tread where leadership fails to provide cover. Whatever the root cause of this lapse may have been for Toyota, it’s worth asking ourselves as we move along on our lean journeys: do we know where excellence fears to tread within our organizations?


  1. Joseph

    February 22, 2011 - 12:29 pm

    Excellence fears to tread in most, Board Rooms, Management offices and Engineering offices.
    Lean also fails to tread on the shop floor when results show that labour should be put into the system to get stable production or quality. Companies do not want to take a short term hit to buy time for investigations to establish long term gains.
    PDCA does work best in a stable environment. Many times the rush to get savings does not save time but makes it harder to see the wood for the trees. Jobs end up taking 2 or 3 iterations to get to the same place that one well planned move would make.
    In a no blame system people should not be held responsible for failures. The systems and procedures are what should be blamed.
    Have a nice day.

  2. John Santomer

    February 26, 2011 - 12:33 am

    Dear Jon,
    Long time have I dreamed of a place to find where blame is not a culture. I actually found out that the owner of the business are more forgiving than the ones who run it for them.
    Fact is, I heard (and it seems it is true) the same can be found in the place where TPS has originated.
    Its a good thing the pillars have stayed strong and have many people who kept it alive.

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