The First Emperor of China Followed the Toyota Way?

By Jon Miller Published on November 12th, 2012

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A November 2nd article in Sci-News.com proposes Toyota’s Labor Model Used in China 2,200 Years Ago. China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang is known as not only a conqueror and stabilizer of warring kingdoms, but a great standardizer as well. He is said to have set a standard currency, weights and measures, script and even the length of axles to facilitate a transportation system in the newly unified China. This is certainly a solid foundation for building the Toyota model. According to the article,

A new analysis of the Terracotta Army, a famous collection of clay sculptures depicting the army of the first Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC), has revealed that the craftsmen responsible for working on bronze weapons of terracota warriors followed a sophisticated labor model now associated with the world’s largest car manufacturer, Toyota.
The approach, sometimes referred to as Toyotism, involves using small workshops of highly skilled engineers, capable of producing any model of car as and when it is needed, rather than a production line where each unit concentrates on making individual components.

The scientists making the study found that the precisely manufactured arrowheads were made in small batches in separate workshops that produced not only the arrowheads but the entire arrow, as in modern cellular manufacturing. The scientists concluded that the small production teams were using advanced manufacturing techniques, as well as a production system that was more flexible and responsive to changes. Dr Martinón-Torres is quoted:

“In addition, the Army’s soldiers are arranged in such a tight formation in the mausoleum that only the front row could be worked on at any given time. If a single production line had been used the entire process would have to stop every time a single worker failed to keep up with the others. The Toyotism approach avoids this hazard – if something is urgently needed to finish a soldier, one of the workshops can stop whatever it is doing and quickly create this one part.”

One might say that the ancient Chinese were 2,200 years ahead of their time. I prefer to think that some parts of the industrialized West are 2,200 years behind the times.
As a dedicated 20-year student of kaizen and the Toyota Production System, I had never before heard of “Toyotism”. It turns out this is the Toyota Way viewed through the lens of Marxism. According to the glossary of terms explanation of Toyotism on Marxist.org:

Toyotism (or Toyota-ism) is the term often used, by analogy with Fordism and Taylorism, to refer to the management culture and labour processes dominant in Japan, the US, Europe and other developed capitalist countries in the latter part of the twentieth century.

So far so good. The definition goes on for another 800 enlightening words. Once again from the Marxist glossary:

This division of the workforce into a relatively privileged, full-time relatively secure core of loyal, male, skilled workers on one hand, and a mass of part-time casual, often female or immigrant, labourers on the other, is however one of the features of what is called Toyotism. Toyotism depends on this culture of labour-management cooperation, multi-skilling and cross divisional problem solving, and the creation of such a culture is the first requirement. Concessions such as employment security, seniority-based wage systems, twice-yearly bonuses, regular promotion from the shop-floor to senior management, as well as management bonuses tied to the bonuses paid to blue-collar workers and a strict work ethic for white-collar employees and managers were used in Japan to cultivate this spirit of cooperation.
In part because the union leader of today may well be the manager of tomorrow, large firms generally practice union-management consultation over broad strategic decisions. They also endeavour to elicit employee participation in day-to-day problem solving and quality improvements in the workplace. Quality circles and employee suggestion systems are widespread. Problems in product and technological development are tackled by cross-functional teams.

It is hard to understand how a team of scientists could conclude this level of detail about the labor management practices of 2,200 years ago and associate the quality and precision of manufacture of arrows and swords with so-called Toyotism. Most likely Sci-News.com article’s author was referring to the Toyota Production System and no the implied Marxist model of Toyotism.
Further down the page in the glossary the other, which is to say the ideological, shoe drops:

This kind of labour process generates its own class structure: a working class divided between a mass of very poor, utterly alienated workers who have no job security or on-going relationship with their work on one side, and a core of skilled workers with relatively satisfying work and good employment conditions on the other. At the same time, the boundaries between commerce and production, manufacture and service, worker and manager, all become very murky.

Murky indeed. It sounds like the person who wrote this glossary entry could benefit from some genchi gembutsu research. Political science needs the same degree of fieldwork and rigorous testing of hypotheses required of good archaeology.

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