The Toyota Way for Outsiders

In June of 2001, I visited Toyota’s Motomachi plant in Japan and asked the General Manager of final assembly, Mr. Kuzuhara, the following question: “What is the mechanism or process for maintaining discipline to ‘The Toyota Way?'” He replied:

“There was nothing on paper. It was just passed on to employees generation after generation by on-the-job-training. In 2001 Toyota published a book on The Toyota Way [in April]. The book is OK, but practice by us makes the words come alive. Words are just words; there is more to it than words. For the past 50 to 60 years we have never forgotten the importance of education and training. Employees are given specific education targets in keeping with company goals. Not just desk education, but practical skills development.”

The value of “The Toyota Way” for non-Toyota people is two-fold.

  • First, it reminds us that supervisors are responsible for developing subordinates. That means, leaders at all levels must learn Lean principles and practices through hands-on daily practice.

Commitment to education and training, as noted by Mr. Kuzuhara, has weakened in many organizations over the last 20 years, sometimes greatly so. “Desk education,” especially online training, has risen in prominence, while practical skills development on-the-job has declined. Organizations striving to practice REAL Lean must make the commitment to education and training and stick to it, in good times and especially in bad times.

  • Second, it reinforces a fact long known by those who have succeeded in their practice of progressive management. That is, both principles, “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People” are required. The mistake so many people have made in the past, and still make today, is that they think they can improve using only continuous improvement.

For many years, surveys have indicated that most Lean transformation efforts fall short of expectations. Given the live-or-die nature of business in competitive buyers’ markets, one would think that managers would be eager to perform formal root cause analysis of why their Lean transformation efforts fell short of expectations or failed altogether. It is important to understand what went wrong, in detail, and to apply practical countermeasures and achieve better outcomes for both people and processes.

Senior managers should also want to study the Lean transformation failure of other organizations because there is so much to learn. The Lean transformation failure at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in the U.K. is a classic example that all can learn and benefit from regardless of the type of business or industry served. We formally analyze the HMRC case in a graduate course I teach at my university called “Decision Failure Analysis in Technology Management (TM590).” Students consistently cite this as one of the best, most interesting and practical courses they have taken because of the deep insights gained and the failure analysis method they learn. The course usees the A4 failure analysis method that I developed in 2004, and which is described in Appendix IV of my book, Moving Forward Faster (pages 81-98).

We must also focus on success, such as The Wiremold Company’s enterprise-wide Lean transformation and, of course, The Toyota Way 2001 document. Learning from both success and failure are necessary because they teach us much more than either one alone can. They give us a fuller picture of what works, what does not work, what must be said, what must never be said, what must done, and what must never be done. Both Lean success and Lean failure has been the focus of my work since the beginning. Learn from me and you will learn a lot more.

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