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Learning from Toyota Way Principles versus Copying Toyota practices

by Jeffrey Liker
December 20, 2019

Learning from Toyota Way Principles versus Copying Toyota practices

by Jeffrey Liker
December 20, 2019 | Comments (7)

Like any author I have my pet peeves about the way readers and reviewers interpret my books compared to my intentions. One of my biggest is accusations that I am a biased Toyota lover and do not believe they can do anything wrong. Toyota is supposedly a perfect company that always does everything right and I am advocating that every organization should try to be like Toyota. Nothing is further from the truth.

I have spent enough time in Toyota to hear many complaints from Toyota managers about the company, and to learn of many chinks in the armor. Toyota is made up of people with all of our imperfections. Even when we take tours of Toyota plants they openly share periods where they went backwards on key principles such as failing to regularly update standard work as improvements are made, managers who focus on making the numbers instead of using metrics for improvement, cases where the repair bay is quite full and defects are not being caught in process, and more. 

Toyota also backtracks on some “best practices.”  On one visit I will see kitting where all the parts needed for a car are put on carts so the assembler need only use what is there. That is supposed to be an improvement over having boxes of each part on a rack so assemblers need to walk to the rack and select parts needed for a particular car, for example, select the right color and type of seat belts for a car. Then one year later I might see that they went back to the boxes of parts on racks because they had gone too far in kitting and there was too much labor trapped into kitting the parts. Toyota is happy to share that they tried something, learned what went right, and what went wrong, and then changed what they do. Continuous improvement is always some steps backward and hopefully more steps forward. The poor unassuming visitor benchmarking Toyota may see a “best practice” and try to copy it, while for Toyota it was a failed experiment. 

Even Toyota factories do not blindly copy other Toyota factories. After all, all the plants have similar processes to stamp, weld, paint, and assemble. But Toyota sensei will tell you that TPS should really stand for “Thinking Production System.”  They want people to think. Copying is not thinking. Toyota could try to enforce best practices from headquarters so everyone does things the same way, but then continuous improvement would die. They would get compliance not thinking.

They are happy to explain that the principles do not change, but specific practices should always be evaluated and improved if possible. A given factory will be very much aware of what others in the region are doing, through regular visits and joint benchmarking, but benchmarking is intended to get ideas. Any ideas a manager brings home from another plant should consider differences in the context, differences in specific equipment, and the priorities of the home plant. What are our problems? What should we be focused on? Will these ideas possibly help us in what we are trying to accomplish?  If the answer to these questions are all yes, then the home plant will experiment on a small scale with the ideas, adapt them, improve them, and communicate what they are doing to the plant they benchmarked.

Toyota is an exceptional company. The way of thinking is a model to learn from. But copying Toyota’s culture is impossible and ill advised. How can Toyota as a model help you develop a vision for your organization? What can you learn from the principles? What specific, high priority goals are you working on and how can ideas from Toyota possibly help? There are no “solutions” from Toyota, only ideas.

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7 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani December 20, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Gosh, I wish that was one of my biggest accusations.  :)

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Andrew Bishop December 21, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Thanks for this clear, simple, important statement.  There is a lot of copying out there to little good effect and lots of effort put into standards for compliance vs. standards as the means to recognize problems and drive improvement.  I've seen people fret more about everyone doing things the same way than whether or not that way was working!   

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Owen Berkeley-Hill December 23, 2019
3 People AGREE with this comment

Great article, thanks!

My concern about the Lean movement is that, even after three or four decades, it is still a minority sport, less popular than origami or basket weaving. Part of the problem is that we, as a Lean community, do not have a clear, helpful definition that has any level of consensus of what exactly Lean is.  As a result, it is seen as "contextual" and can mean whatever any individual wants it to mean. For example, many organisations start with 5S and then have progress audited by some authority. Audit and 5S: that is really going to encourage a continuous-improvement culture.

Jeffrey, you may remember me contacting you a while back about an ex-student of mine who was taking a post-graduate course in Supply Chain Management at Ross.  You suggested that Lean was alive and kicking in Engineering at UoM, but Ross was a Lean-free environment.  Can Lean continue if, every year, the B-Schools around the world churn out MBA graduates in their millions, who have been taught to cling to a very anti-Lean philosophy, a management philosophy which, according to the brothers Hopper (The Puritan Gift; 2010; I B Tauris) caused the USA to decline from being the “workshop of the world”? The brothers, Kenneth & William, also argue that the Gift was generously given to the Japanese after WWII. Was this Gift developed into what we now know as Lean?  Surely, it is time that the Lean movement developed the cojones to challenge what is being taught to impressionable future business leaders.

LERC at Cardiff held a conference in July to celebrate 25 years since its inception. Dan Jones gave a talk about his journey over that period. One of his concerns was what he called the Modern Business Model (taught at B-Schools?) which he suggests has led to inequality and populism. Perhaps The Lean Post might ask Dan if he was willing to have his slides (and the accompanying video) posted here at some future date.

I think Lean has a bigger role to play than just eliminating various forms of waste in Operations. For example, has any Six Sigma Black Belt, anywhere in the world, tried to reduce the corrosive effects of the Mura and Muri of management behaviour or is this area sacrosanct? Can we develop standardised behaviour for leaders and then continuously improve it?  Over 90% of India’s working population (~500 million) work in the informal/unorganised sector, but account for around 50% of India’s GDP. This video (https://youtu.be/yQGaoj9Iwro) has, I am told, gone viral in India. Learning is at the core of Lean. How do these very poor people learn in order to eat? Can we learn from them; can they teach us something about mentoring and coaching? What can Lean offer them? Do they have a better, more sustainable business model than Dan’s Modern Business Model?

We need to move Lean away from its roots in manufacturing and operations where B-Schools like to park it.  We need to challenge the thinking taught in B-Schools that is well past its sell-by.

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Daniel Fisher December 31, 2019
2 People AGREE with this comment

When coaching on lean I always try to explain that while Toyota and other companies created a very nice "framework" for how to improve, the goal is to improve, not to blindly use TPS. Do what makes sense for your business, for your problems. Dont take things too literally, think of the intent of what its trying to convey and then go improve.

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Matt January 03, 2020

It's worrying that lean practitioners seek to carbon copy Toyota when Toyota talks about Yokoten, which is going to your peers to see what they are doing and then adapting it to your own environment. At no point should you simply copy anything without considering your own current state. 

This kind of best-practice anti-thinking is covered a lot in the literature.

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Stephen Lampard January 11, 2020
1 Person AGREES with this comment

As a Toyota Manufacturing worker, supervisor and manager for over 40 years, the article I have just read couldn't be more accurate.

The word Kaizen means to study , implement small or large change, fine tune, standardise.

This approach has been evident, not only at my plant, but the many other Toyota affiliates I have had the pleasure of visiting over my career. There will always be reluctance to change, but once the benefits are demonstrated, the members get on board.Their involvement in any change is mandatory.

Truly a fantastic tried and true system which has no doubt made dramatic improvements over my journey.

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Edgar B. Agustin January 19, 2020
2 People AGREE with this comment

Great article. I absolutely agree that TPS should stand for “Thinking Production System.” I used to think Lean was about copying everything Toyota did, believing (blindly) that Toyota became successful, nonpareil, because of what they do (the tools).

My belief was shattered when I read the story told by Shigeo Shingo in his book, "A Study of the Toyota Production System from an Industrial Engineering Viewpoint," about how he and his team sequentially improved the changeover time of a 1,000 ton press from 4 hours to 1 ½ hours to 3 minutes! The sequential improvements came when challenges were presented and he thought of solutions on how he can overcome such challenges. In the beginning, while their changeover time was 4 hours, Volkswagen in comparison was 2 hours. That’s the time he thought of distinguishing external and internal setups and reducing both setup times. Then the management demanded that the setup time be shortened to 3 minutes. The challenge seemed impossible until Shingo thought of converting internal setup into external setup, then only then they achieved 3 minutes in changeover time. And we can see from history how the pioneers of Lean came up with tools we now know as kanban, jidoka, JIT, poka yoke, etc. as solutions to existing challenges they faced in their times. If we could practice this way of thinking in our daily work, who knows how many next generation tools will be developed? TPS is really the "True Problem Solving" system.

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