Lessons Well Learned

Nearly every current or former Toyota employee can tell you the wonderful things they learned about The Toyota Way (TW) and about the Toyota Production System (TPS). But of course, not all of us have had the benefit of working at Toyota Motor Corporation. But, some of us are fortunate to have learned about TW+ TPS directly from former Toyota employees – especially those who learned their lessons well. After all, you don’t want to learn something that affects the lives of other people from someone who does not know what they are doing.

The first people to come out of Toyota and teach TW+TPS to a broader audience were the consultants from Shingijutsu in 1988. I am very fortunate to have been trained by Shingijutsu starting 20 years ago. Even more so because I have recently come to realize, with much greater clarity, that I learned my fundamentals very well. I focused on mastering the basics and dealing with problems immediately, as sensei Nakao and his team taught me to do. Their great training plus my daily practice has given me something truly special.

However, many people seem to drift away from what they were taught. It appears that people forget what they were taught due to a lack of practice, or are easily influenced by people who lack the training lineage to Toyota (and, therefore, Mr. Ohno). Mr. Nakao notices this and urges his students to continuously improve their understanding of kaizen (inclusive of the “Respect for People” principle).

I suppose drift is inevitable as many people rush to cash in on training other people on a proven method to grow sales, reduce costs, expand margins, etc. Yet these benefits are really only attainable if one thinks hard and focuses on doing the work correctly. In most cases, people do not, and what you’re actually seeing, especially in large corporations, is a combination of Lean management done poorly and financial engineering (“money games,” as one of my senseis used to say).

The image below illustrates how TW+TPS has drifted over time and the sad end-point that we could be headed for.


The further removed we get from “The Originals” in time, the more likely that Lean (TW+TPS) has drifted far from its true way of thinking and practice. Let me say it another way: The later an organization is to Lean management, the more likely it is that they will not actually do Lean. Instead, they will do derivatives far removed from the original TW+TPS thinking and practice, and become “certified” for that.

Sometimes, a little drift can be a good thing because it can result in improved ways of thinking and practice. But, the typical outcome is one in which bad things happen when drift occurs. Foremost is the introduction of ways of thinking and practices that are inconsistent with TW+TPS, such as: change management, organizational behavior and organizational development interventions, project management control of kaizen, ROI calculations for kaizen, crazing things like 5S kaizen (i.e. “atomized” kaizen), veneration of value stream maps and A3 reports, and so on. This changes the language, concept, thinking, and practice, which, in turn, changes the outcomes – typically, a few tiny improvements made very slowly over time.

In order for a process such as Lean transformation to be a success, its settings can not be changed indiscriminately – which is what happens when people don’t think or don’t know what they are doing, usually as a result of learning from the wrong people. The desired outcome is many improvements made quickly.

Isn’t it remarkable that in the organizations where the adoption of Lean management (TW+TPS) has been most successful, the kaizen facilitators had no scholarly knowledge of or formal training in organizational behavior, organizational development, or change management. The sensei’s process for organizational change is as follows: A day or so of classroom training in basic industrial engineering methods, then off to the gemba for 3-7 days of hands-on kaizen focused on converting batch-and-queue processes (in manufacturing or service work) to flow. And then repeat the improvement cycle over and over again to deepen and expand one’s learning. That’s it.

Please think more deeply about kaizen (done right) and its importance in simultaneously developing people while improving processes, and in correcting the drift threatens the integrity of progressive Lean management.

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