Akio Toyoda’s View of TPS: A Critical Analysis

Akio Toyoda2

A recent article in Toyota Times described Akio Toyoda’s view of Toyota Production System in the context of:

  • “bring[ing] back what makes us Toyota”
  • “completely redesigning Toyota for the future”
  • and [a] “training program is for Toyota’s management leaders who don’t work at manufacturing frontlines”

The article has been analyzed by Lean luminaries such as Jon Miller (click here to view Jon’s post) and Mark Graban (click here to view Mark’s post). I would like to offer a different perspective than theirs.

The article begins by saying:

TPS may no longer be strictly an internal term at Toyota as there are now many books from external experts explaining TPS. These experts outside of Toyota often refer to TPS in management, manufacturing, or other process-development books and/or seminars about how Toyota’s manufacturing is conducted. However, Akio’s angle seemed to be a bit unique, and even used some rather usual explanations.

These words indicate that outside experts who have written about or teach TPS have not deeply understood TPS, under-emphasized what is most important, or have gotten some key points wrong. I interpret the above quote to be a nicely worded but stern push back on those outside experts who think they know what TPS is.

Like most manufacturers, Toyota has a large number of employees working external to the core manufacturing function. In addition, many manufacturers migrate over time to take on more service work both internally (supporting other functions) and externally (providing new services to customers) as they grow in size over time. For some companies, as they evolve over time, service revenue eclipses manufacturing sales. Toyota recognizes that in the future, mobility may be more service than product.

Non-manufacturing managers and workers engage in their daily processes, and as in any process there is queue time (waste) that, if eliminated, would reduce the time to complete a decision or task. So how does Jidoka and Just-in-Time, the core elements of TPS, relate to office work?

Mr. Toyoda’s understanding of TPS goes back to the beginning — to Sakichi Toyoda, the hand loom, and the purpose of Jidoka, which was to make work easier for weavers, and with further improvements made to the looms later on, make the work safer for operators. According to Mr. Toyoda:

Often at Toyota, TPS is considered the process of making things efficient, and you talk about changing the way of work as the purpose of applying it in that context. But I think the purpose should be to make someone’s work easier, and I believe this is the most reasonable way of understanding what it really is about. (bold added)

Importantly, productivity improvement (and cost-reduction) were the result of “trying to help team members” by making their work easier. So an understanding of TPS as productivity improvement and cost reduction not correct. TPS means coming up with ideas to make people’s work easier so that employees do not have to encounter abnormalities. To do this, managers must go to the frontlines and “[think] about how to make people’s work easier, and therefore more meaningful (i.e less waste, more value-added). Thus, TPS is “centered on people,” not on the needs of the company because being “centered on people” takes care of whatever the company needs may be. So, managers should do as Sakichi Toyoda did:

…[make] work for someone like your own mother easier…

Mr. Toyoda’s again goes back to the beginning — to Kiichiro Toyoda to discuss Just-in-Time — with time being the critical element. In particular, lead-time, and shortening it by improving management’s responsiveness to abnormalities such as inventory build-ups which cause problems for downstream customers. How do you do this? By making people’s work easier, which reduces cycle time and eliminates queue time at each process. And doing that requires ideas for kaizen, which must be plentiful and proceed quickly without bureaucratic (management) delay.

…use the time [at work] to change what’s happening in front of your eyes every day, rather than getting stuck in hierarchical bureaucracy.

Mr. Toyoda wants to eliminate blocked information flows, in particular those related to ideas for making work easier and shortening lead-times, whether the work is within or external to manufacturing. In sum,

Shortening lead time for customers, making existing work processes easier for colleagues, and improving the quality of the time spent for work for the sake of each member and the member’s family – that is what TPS is about.

And from that comes many good things that CEOs care about: productivity improvement, cost reduction, quality improvement, satisfied customers, etc.

What is interesting about Mr. Toyoda’s perspective is his reorienting of TPS away from a technical understanding, which is how most outside experts have understood it, to a human understanding — where people’s ideas are the engine of TPS, and every person has lots of ideas, all of which are needed. Importantly, the true heart of TPS comes from the idea-driven work of Sakichi Toyoda and Kiichiro Toyoda. This construction appears to deemphasize the work of Taichi Ohno (who “helped establish” TPS) and reemphasize the the work of Sakichi Toyoda and Kiichiro Toyoda. Why do this?

Ohno TPS

Times have changed and Mr. Toyoda seems to be preparing the company for a future in which a more fundamental, human view of TPS, as expressed by Sakichi Toyoda and Kiichiro Toyoda, is necessary to assure company survival. In addition, the understanding of TPS as expressed by outside experts may have had an excessive and unwanted influence within Toyota, and so Mr. Toyoda seeks to reverse that influence and return to a basic organic understanding of TPS. This negative influence likely includes the ever-increasing superficiality of understanding and practice of TPS that has become rampant in the Lean community in the last 15 years or so.

Managers trained in classical management do not think they need to dirty themselves by going to the frontlines, make work easier for employees, shorten lead times at each process, or speed the flow of kaizen ideas. If Mr. Toyoda’s understanding of TPS takes root in Toyota, then it will likely be a significant reason why Toyota prospers in the future. While the Lean community remains fixated on leadership behaviors, Mr. Toyoda is focused on management mindset and is trying to break a few very important preconceptions that threaten company survival. In contrast, managers trained in classical management are enfeebled by myriad preconceptions that put them father behind the times with each passing day. Yet, their view of TPS, Lean, Agile, and other forms of progressive management are seen as nothing more than an unwanted corruption of the normative order that must be beaten back if not destroyed. We’ll see who survives.

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