Akio Toyoda’s Take on TPS

By Jon Miller Updated on August 31st, 2020

Image source: ToyotaTimes

One might think that Toyota, after more than fifty years of developing, working within, and refining the Toyota Production System, wouldn’t need to run training courses on TPS for managers. And yet recently Toyota has started a series of trainings to study TPS once again.

CEO Akio Toyoda himself was the lecturer at one of these town hall-like sessions. This was featured in an article in ToyotaTimes. Here is the English version. Below is a summary of what I took away, allowing for differences in emphasis and nuance of translation.

Change – Careful Thought = Chaos

Toyoda had received a summary of the participants’ expectations for his lecture in advance. Many of them expressed a strong desire to change Toyota and used various TPS keywords.

“It’s good to want to change. But if we change this and that without careful thought, we’ll screw up the company.” Toyoda proceeded to ask participants if they knew the two philosophical points that existed even before Toyota Motors was founded.

“TPS and cost reduction,” answered one participants. This was not wrong, but not the answer Toyoda was looking for.

“Just-in-time and jidoka,” or automation with a human touch, answered another.

“Yes, yes, yes! That’s what I wanted to hear!” This brought laughter from the audience.

Spinning Late into the Night

Akio Toyoda went on to explain the history of the invention of the automatic loom by Sakichi Toyoda. The inventor was motivated not by a desire to strike it rich. His mechanical modification increased productivity of weaving and disrupted an age-old industry. Sakichi the carpenter watched his mother spinning late into the night on a manual loom. He wanted to make her work easier for his mother.

This desire led to a series of innovations. First to make the work less physically demanding, then to the powered loom. Further, the use of mechanical triggers sensed when threads broke or ran out. This both improved quality by stopping when detecting defects, and improved productivity by freeing people from watching the machines.

Automation with a Human Touch

In Toyoda’s view, these inventions were not motivated by the goal to increase productivity but to relieve the burden on people. Once automated, people in loom works had to stand around all day in poor air quality watching automated looms that lacked a human touch. This damaged the workers’ lungs. Sakichi Toyoda’s innovation enabled the mechanical detection of errors. This freed people from watching machines and made work better for these people.

In general, the idea of jidoka is human-centered mechanization and automation. It is not to make people work all day with no break. The aim of jidoka is to remove burden, waste, variability and other nuisances. The heart of automation with a human touch is observing the process as if our beloved mother was doing the work, making it lighter, more pleasant and more fulfilling.

Shortening Response Times

On the topic of just-in-time, Toyoda emphasized the importance of shortening lead-times. This is required both to minimize inventories while delivering to customers on-time, and to respond to abnormalities without delay. This discussion of just-in-time, lead-time and responsiveness led to Toyoda sharing a story of when he worked on kaizen with dealership employees.

No Titles, Only “Persons Responsible For”

At the dealership, people on the gemba found problems each day. They reported upward to leaders who could take a decision on a weekly basis. They escalated issues to the next level, on a monthly basis. The lag time in communication between organization levels had resulted in slow adoption of commonsense improvements.

Toyoda viewed job titles and hierarchy as a source of information delay and loss of organizational agility. Toyoda said he eliminated titles because he did not want a “vice president of” a function but a “person responsible for” issues that arise on a daily basis.

TPS Lessons from the C… from the Person Responsible For Closing the Gap

Why did Toyoda feel it was uniquely his task to emphasize these points about TPS? Has Toyota lost the human touch element of TPS? Have their kaizen activities become less focused on making work easier for people? Or perhaps the other speakers and lecturers addressed the technical aspects and details of how to do kaizen.

Toyoda was careful not to speak from a position of authority or to say, “From now on, this is what we mean by the Toyota Production System.” Instead, he repeatedly expressed his insights as, “This is just my view…” or “The way I see it…” or “As I understand TPS…” His explanations of TPS were more a statement of values than formulas, technical frameworks, or steps to implementation. Those are no doubt important. But he was speaking as “the person responsible for” closing, or at least narrowing, the gap in understanding of the underlying values of TPS.

  1. Janakiram S D

    September 2, 2020 - 6:03 am

    Very good reading to reinforce the basic values and principles of TPS

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