The Man Who Saved Kaizen

It is with love and gratitude that we remember Eiji Toyoda, the man who forever changed how the world improves the way we work. He passed on this week, aged 100.

He engineered the successful Toyota-GM join venture in California known as NUMMI, which established the first Toyota culture and Toyota production system in the USA, giving us John Shook to keep the lean community honest as well as a world class workshop for Elon Musk to churn out sleek electric cars. You’re welcome, Lean Enterprise Institute and Tesla Motors.

Eiji Toyoda showed us the value of limiting WIP and avoiding overproduction by providing the space and resources for the kanban system to develop at Toyota. You’re welcome, agile-lean-kanban community.

He built a kaizen culture by being a leader who lived the core beliefs by example for a quarter of a decade. Some of the sayings of Eiji Toyoda that best illustrate the man, his thinking and how it influenced the Toyota Way a.k.a. lean management:

People are the most important asset of Toyota, and the determinant of the rise and fall of Toyota.

On leadership:

Even when top management makes a decision, their role is merely to wave the flag. It is no use if people do not follow that flag.

An article in the Sankei News recalls the memory of those who knew Eiji Toyota as an engineer who showed his love for the manufacturing gemba – where the work was done. “There were always metal chips on the soles of his shoes,” from walking in the casting and machining plants. Eiji Toyoda led from the front.

His message to leaders within Toyota:

I want you to use your own heads. And I want you actively to train your people on how to think for themselves.

In Hino’s study Inside the Mind of Toyota, the belief in the importance of building a habit to identify problems was clear when Eiji Toyoda said,”Whether you pick them up and treat them as problems is a matter of habit. If you have the habit, then you can do whatever you have a mind to.”

On continuous improvement, he famously said:

It is not mechanical thinking. You can get water even from a dry towel if you use your mind.

This has been quoted out of context, without reference to “not mechanical thinking”, and misunderstood to mean than continuous improvement is a relentless, brutal squeezing of every last drop of waste and cost from every process. As the saying goes, “You can’t get blood from a stone,” but in fact that is mechanical thinking. Eiji Toyoda taught that we must abandon our biases and preconceived notions, rely the intelligence and creativity of people and never give up looking for better ways.

On making mistakes:

Your mistakes are your tuition.

Significantly, Eiji Toyoda made it not only safe for workers to stop work to alert their leaders to problems, but made it an absolute requirement. When engineers and managers made mistakes, which were typically more expensive than those made by workers on the production floor, he let them know that he considered this the price of educating them.

This week Nikkei BP Online reran highlights from past interviews with Eiji Toyoda. On the difference between a process stopping and stopping a process:

[…] we stopped the line, corrected the problem, and returned production to normal. The process did not stop. We stopped the process. This is the crucial difference. If the line or process stops due to a lack of parts, lack of people, or an earthquake, this is an unplanned, haphazard situation. Instead, in these cases we actively decide that “We need to stop the line,” and that is Toyota’s production system.

On the Just in Time banners he saw at GM:

You won’t see “Just in Time” banners in any of our factories. Just in time is just normal. It’s something we do as routine, daily practice, so there is no need to put a banner up to display it.

On Toyota’s secret sauce:

Ultimately, there are no special secret strategies to the Toyota Production System. We are just doing the obvious things, thoroughly, without omission, as a habit. This is simple, but difficult to do consistently across large organizations.

In 1951, after returning from a visit to Ford in the United States, much of the Ford production system manual was adopted as best practice. Had he stopped there, Toyota would have been just another mediocre automobile manufacturer. Instead he persisted in making Ford’s kaizen suggestion system workable by ensuring the leadership ecosystem was in place. Eiji Toyoda successfully engaged perhaps millions of employees in kaizen across the Toyota group over 60 plus years. In Masaaki Imai’s 1986 book Kaizen: They Key to Japan’s Competitive Success, Eiji Toyoda said “Our workers provide 1.5 million suggestions a year, and 95 percent of them are put to practical use. There is an almost tangible concern for improvement in the air at Toyota.”

Taiichi Ohno often remarked, and wrote in Chapter 6 of Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management, that the Toyota Production System would not be what it is today without the management support and critical air cover provided by Eiji Toyoda during the early experimental stages of TPS, when it was at risk of being shot down by other more traditional managers at Toyota.

Eiji Toyoda was an engineer, top manager, leader, teacher, chairman, senior advisor, and guiding spirit at Toyota. Without his love for the front lines, belief in people and total commitment to continuous improvement, the methods and practices that compose the Toyota Production System would not have become deeply embedded in the culture of Toyota. I don’t think it’s too much to say that Eiji Toyoda is the man who saved kaizen.

You’re welcome, world.


  1. Kevin

    September 20, 2013 - 7:39 pm

    Beautiful summary of the man and his thinking.

  2. Mark Graban

    September 21, 2013 - 4:43 am

    Thanks for sharing the great quotes and reflections.

  3. Rick

    September 21, 2013 - 5:41 am

    Well said, Kevin. But please tell us a little more about him outside of his ‘celebrity’, get beyond the TPS aspect.. Was he married/have a family/siblings, did he have hobbies, how did he like to pass the time, what were his thoughts on things not related to work? Please share, so we can truly appreciate the man that he was, beyond his genius at work.
    Thank you, and best wishes,

  4. Richard Kunst

    September 21, 2013 - 3:48 pm

    Not only an eloquent epitaph … but a great summary about the DNA of TPS. Thanks for sharing some real pearls of wisdom.

  5. Danie Vermeulen

    September 21, 2013 - 5:54 pm

    Thanks for sharing Jon – great insights and a reminder to acknowledge and respect the context and roots of the undiluted Kaizen mindset.
    I particularly like the quote “We are just doing the obvious things, thoroughly, without omission, as a habit.”
    That is motivation for me to reflect on my own habits.
    Danie Vermeulen
    Kaizen Institute NZ

  6. Keerthi

    September 22, 2013 - 7:45 am

    May he attain permanent peace.

  7. J.C.

    September 23, 2013 - 6:46 am

    Don’t forget W. Edwards Deming’s role!

  8. Ganesh Arunachala

    October 4, 2013 - 1:27 am

    Hi Jon
    Thank you for the great article

  9. Narendra

    January 16, 2014 - 7:38 am

    Hi Jon
    Thanks for sharing
    This is motivation for me to reflect on my own habits.

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