Generic Brand or Name Brand?

Here are 13 words that I appreciate more and more with each passing day:

Our way of thinking is very difficult to copy or even to understand.”

Fujio Cho, former president and chairman of Toyota (and who worked under Taiichi Ohno), said this about Toyota’s management practices in the context of Toyota managers – not outsiders. Keep that in mind as you read below.

Is Lean difficult to copy or understand? Perhaps so, but definitely not in the same way that Toyota’s management system is difficult to copy or even to understand.

Lean should be understood as an English interpretation of Toyota’s unique Japanese management practices. For various reasons, translation of Japanese into English is very difficult. Spanish and Italian are close to English, but Japanese is very far from English. That is why it is inaccurate to say “translation” and accurate to say “interpretation.”

To understand Toyota’s management system (Toyota Production System and The Toyota Way), English speaking people must listen very carefully to the sensei’s interpreter, much in the way that skilled musicians very carefully listen to music. Doing this helps to greatly improve one’s understanding. But, no matter how good the interpreter is, what I hear in English is not the same as what I would hear if I were fluent in Japanese.

Over time, I have come to realize that there has long been poor listening among the good people who brought us Lean. Important concepts, practices, and details were de-emphasized or left out, and it remains that way even to this day. Lean is not a high precision interpretation of Toyota management. Its quality is lower than people realize.

Generic products always lack the character, richness, and flavor of name brand products.

“Lean” was presented to the public in 1988 as synonymous with TPS, while today it is regarded as a generic term for both TPS and The Toyota Way. Whether synonymous or generic, Lean may be similar but it is not the same as Toyota’s management system. Equivalency cannot exist in part because Japanese and English languages are so different. There are many other important differences as well.

Lean management is the generic brand, while Toyota management is the name brand. The generic brand, Lean, can be helpful for developing people and improving the work that organizations do. It is a good starting point. But it is just that: A starting point.

The name brand, Toyota management, has a different mindset, different objectives, functions on a different time scale – different ingredients that yield better business results. It offers a richness in learning and innovation that far exceeds Lean management.

Yet, most people do not see this because they think there is an equivalency between Lean management and Toyota management. Whether this was an accident or by design, I cannot say. The result, however, is confusion and a general lack of interest in deepening one’s understanding, to transcend Lean management and journey into Toyota management. That’s where the fun really begins.

Most people who practice Lean management soon realize that they more they learn, the more they realize how much they don’t know. It gets worse (or better) when you decide to upgrade from the generic brand to the name brand, Toyota management, and challenge yourself to think as they do.

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