Why Don’t You Try TPS?

“We need to improve our operation.”

“Why don’t you try TPS?”

“We don’t make cars.”

If I had a dollar for every time a client brought up the “we don’t make cars” objection to trying to learn from the Toyota Production System, I could make a downpayment for the Tesla Model 3. But it looks like it will be quite a while before I’d get my hands on one of those vehicles.

Tesla announced this week their “Model 3 production was less than anticipated due to production bottlenecks.” That’s like saying we’re behind schedule because we’re running late. Not wrong, but also a hint that the travelers might be lost. Tesla is averaging three computers on wheels per day, far from the the one unit per minute they are aiming to build.

The Wall Street Journal reported that workers were “piecing parts together in a special area” sometimes by hand, because the automated equipment for high-volume manufacturing was still weeks away from being built, installed and calibrated. Production struggles are not new for Tesla, but the lack of a fully functional assembling line so far into their production run “could deal a bigger blow to the company” according to the article. An ex-Toyota manufacturing executive is quoted stating the obvious, “You’re not really improving the final process if you’re not running on it,” and “Problems can only be solved once they are found.”

I don’t claim to know what’s going on at Tesla. Perhaps it is a stubborn “not invented here” mentality. Or smart minds dulled by hubris from the adulation of the stock market. It’s seems like Tesla is struggling to reinvent the wheel of how to ramp up automobile production. We know how to do this. Very well, in fact. Have known for decades.

This situation reminded of me of the early 1990s when I accompanied Japanese gurus of automotive manufacturing, experts in kaizen and the Toyota Production System. American companies  who wanted to improve quality, productivity, on-time delivery and capacity hired them. We would walk American managers around the shop floor, asking

Where is the tooling? This question came up a lot when visiting assembly operations. It was met with puzzled looks. Fixtures in assembly? Fixtures were for welding, cutting, processes that involved machine tools. “For work piece holding,” the Japanese visitor explained. Hands, tables, and conveyor belts were never acceptable answers to that follow up question.

Where are the production engineers? We never found any. The closest we came were industrial engineers who knew what we were asking, but weren’t being allowed to do their job. In a nutshell, manufacturing engineers worked on specific processes, machines or technologies, while production engineers the Japanese consultant wanted to meet worked on keeping product moving smoothly across a series of processes. American manufacturing didn’t need production engineers because we had batch production and MRP II which was working just fine and has for decades, thank you very much.

Where are the small group activities? Answer: “We tried QC circles for a while. It became too bureaucratic or the person responsible left or new management came in, and we stopped. Now we are trying kaizen!” What we heard was, “We tried giving frontline workers the support and autonomy to improve their work, but ran out of patience and are back to a top-down approach.”

Why aren’t managers doing jishuken? This one was hard to translate. This concept, this word, was unique to Toyota. It means roughly “autonomous research into the Toyota Production System” by a team of managers. For example, a plant management team might spend a day practicing TPS methods to study and resolve a bottleneck in production. Imagine a book club that meets every 4-6 weeks, except that there is no book, people meet on the shop floor, they tackle real problems, and learne how to run and improve their management system. Even today, it is very rare to find managers in the U.S. meeting regularly for this style of self-study on their management system.

Why don’t you do production preparation? Answer: “We do.” Reply: “That’s can’t be.” After we clarify that what we meant by production preparation is more than product validation, and includes installing and ramping up a production method that hits safety, quality, delivery and cost targets, fingers come out and to point to engineering, sales, marketing, purchasing as the reason why not.

These questions weren’t about Lean tools. These questions were concerned with basic thinking about how we make things. That is not a solutions that consultants can deliver in a week or a month. The companies that succeeded heard these questions and realized they needed more than diet and exercise, but a long-term get-well plan to fundamentally reshape their unfit bodies. Today we might call this an enterprise-wide Lean transformation.

What’s the future of lean manufacturing? When people asked me this I used to say, “Toyota, 1985.” Still true for most. So, Elon Musk. Visionary industrialist. Electric oracle. Iron Man. The most Boring man in the world. I see you’re having trouble meeting your delivery targets. You’re building products that look a lot like cars. Why don’t you try TPS? You could even call it the Tesla Production System.


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