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Should we have our own TPS "house"?

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Dear Gemba Coach, 

My management wants to build our own version of the TPS (Toyota Production System) house in order to standardize our lean approach. Do you have any advice on how to do this?

Actually, on this specific question, I do: don’t do it. I’ve seen many lean “houses” over the years and just by Googling “TPS house” you’ll probably find more. In my experience, such efforts are about implementing lean in the company, not helping the company to become lean – and rarely pay off. There are two main issues to consider when adopting the TPS house: firstly, how and why it actually came up within Toyota and secondly how these concepts translate out of Toyota and in your own organization.

As John Shook has pointed out, one should not confuse the Toyota Production System and Toyota’s system of production: TPS is fairly different from what Toyota actually does on its production lines. It sounds fairly close, you’ll say, and I have to agree.  TPS shows the way to perfection, the True North. Toyota’s system of production is the set of actual practices that Toyota has in place right now – which evolves according to events and local competence. Any Toyota plant is only as good as its plant manager.The point is that the Toyota Production System house is Toyota’s -- not your company’s --and making your own is likely to not make much sense culturally and induce misunderstandings you’ll later rue. Use the TPS house as a way to explain what lean is about and how Toyota does it but don’t try to design your own – that’s missing the point.

The ambiguous term “system” has also caused a lot of lean heartache over the years. Bear in mind that we all tend to interpret what we see from our own pre-existing perspective. Understanding any artifact from the point of view of its creator is often difficult, as can be experienced when we look at any new piece of art or technology.

Our traditional industrial perspective is clearly Taylorist. We’ve been brought up to believe that if we design the right process and we apply it across the board, we’ll get the right results. Logically, it’s easy to interpret the concept of “production system” as a set of processes that need to be standardized across all operations. In this mindset, lean means replacing our existing processes by “leaner” processes – and it makes sense to systematize these lean processes in a roadmap, house, manual, etc.

Never-Ending Homework

When Toyota pioneers dreamed up their system, they were working from a very different premise. Their obsession was kaizen, not systematization of processes. From this perspective, a system meant “a set of interrelated activities to improve quality, cost, lead-time, and productivity.” It was NOT a set of actual production processes, but a box of homework exercises that, if practiced assiduously, would lead to improved processes. There is no such thing as a lean process: opportunities for further kaizen can always be found. The activities summarized in the “system” give a clear direction for the next step of kaizen:

  1. Customer satisfaction -- Oddly, but quite revealingly, this aspect often disappears from adapted houses. The first exercise to work on in order to become lean is to improve customer satisfaction. To start with this means striving to deliver good parts on time: no quality complaints, no late deliveries. Sure, this can be achieved by holding an inventory and lots of quality inspection, which is exactly what Toyota engineers do when they’ve got a doubt about a process: they put finished goods inventory and add inspection operators, with the explicit aim to kaizen it away. For any company, asking oneself what would customers complete satisfaction look like is the key to getting everything else right.
  2. Jidoka -- The Jidoka pillar is probably the most original part of TPS and the hardest to understand because it blends a certain understanding of quality with a vision of the relationship between human work and machine work. To take one aspect of it, the homework exercises are about built-in-quality. No step in the process should accept bad parts, make bad parts or pass on bad parts to the next step. The basic exercise is to stop whenever any defect has been identified (by either the operator or the machine) and investigate until the cause of the defect is found and eradicated. This will lead you first to eliminate human errors, due to not following standardized work, then to work with manufacturing engineering to eliminate causes of defects in the way machines are designed and finally to improve product design so that less defects can occur, at which level one can accurately speak of “build in quality.” There are a number of technical tricks to do so, from andon to poka- yoke, but the main idea is to practice the activity of “stop and investigate at every defect” in order to learn about what causes defects.
  3. Just-in-time -- The favorite pillar to most industrial companies, JIT is about learning to deliver exactly what has been ordered exactly when it has been ordered and in exactly the right quantity. The emphasis is on “exactly”; no less, no more.  Now, this turns out to be quite a challenge, because production systems are usually conceived to be kept running (for labor cost and equipment payback considerations) regardless of technical issues or part shortages. Forcing oneself NOT to produce more than immediate demand BUT not to accept to produce late is very demanding and mechanically involves reducing batch sizes and stabilizing processes. THERE IS NO JUST-IN-TIME process in the abstract. Or, more to the point, every process has its level of just-in-time: month? week? day? hour? You start with what you’ve got, level the plan, reduce the batch size and fight each production loss until you increase your level of just-in-time.
  4. Standardized work and kaizen -- Involving operators in designing or redesigning their own work stations has been a Toyota obsession from very early on. Indeed, in the first published paper about TPS, the authors highlighted two major distinctive features of the production system: just-in-time production and respect for humans, meaning that workers are allowed to display in full their capabilities through active participation in running and improving their own workshops. The underlying mechanism to do this is to practice standardized work and kaizen relentlessly.

Housing Bubble

There is not ONE version of the Toyota house, but several according to when and by whom it is drawn. Some place heijunka along with standardized work and kaizen on the base. Others insist that there should be a further basic step of “stability.” The French plant came up with 5S, TPM, and problem solving as a base below standardization and kaizen. Since Fujio Cho formulated the Toyota Way 2001, 10 years ago, some houses now have kaizen and respect as their basic pillars, and so on. I’ve just seen one with “finding waste and problems” at the top and “visual control and flexibility” as the base. All equally correct.

The point is that the Toyota Production System house is Toyota’s – not your company’s, and appropriating it through making your own is likely to 1) not make much sense culturally and 2) induce misunderstandings you’ll later rue. Use the TPS house as a way to explain what lean is about and how Toyota does it, by all means – we certainly all refer to it frequently, but don’t try to design your own – that’s missing the point.

The point of the house is that certain activities can be performed independently of industry or job, whether in engineering, production, purchasing (maybe even sales?), etc. For instance, getting to the next level of just-in-time is pretty much like saying: lose weight by walking faster and exercising more often. Fair enough. The details of how Toyota actually practices this are very industry specific (there’s nothing quite like automotive) and Toyota specific. They can inspire, but copying the results of years of practicing just-in-time or Jidoka improvement will NOT deliver anything for your own business. At best, you’ll invest in implementing stuff on the shop floor no one will ever know how to use properly.

On the other hand, it’s hard to fight city hall, so if management wants it, you’re going to have to comply sooner or later. In this case, I’d suggest:

First, try to get the management group to formulate clearly what they want out of the lean efforts – the test method so to speak. For instance, if we take Art Byrne’s list from Wiremold (in Lean Thinking) this would be something like:

  • 100 percent on-time delivery,
  • 50 percent defects reduction every year,
  • 20 percent productivity gain every year,
  • 20x inventory turns,
  • a visual workplace utilizing 5S.

Getting agreement on something like this and getting this on paper is key to your success and can rekindle the deeper argument of how to become lean.

Second, stay as close as you can to the basic TPS house seen as improvement practices:

  • Customer satisfaction must be improved on quality, cos,t, and lead-time,
  • Start with safety and morale,
  • Just-in-time levels must be improved from month, week, day, hour, minute etc.,
  • Jidoka must be improved by better visualizing problems and responding right away rather than working around them,
  • Workstations must be improved by getting operators to standardize and improve constantly how they work.

DO NOT try to fit all tools and practices to help people make sense of the “toolbox.” This is a common mistake and it's incomplete, confusing and encourages precisely the wrong kind of thinking.

  • Third, as your company is taking its lead from Toyota by creating its own production system, make sure to insist that the “system” formulation is never permanent in Toyota, but subject to rethinking and evolution. The “Toyota Way” was termed the Toyota Way 2001 to explicitly make the point that this was what Toyota thought in 2001 but that it should be seen as a signpost on the journey, not the ending.

The one consistent feedback on translating TPS into other companies is that first, companies pick and choose which aspects they think will work for them, and ignore the others. You can see this easily by comparing how often just-in-time is attempted or written about to how rarely Jidoka gets mentioned.

Secondly, firms will “adapt” the tools and principles to make them more palatable to the local culture. Most plant managers will actually argue this point vehemently.

Twenty years of experience show that both tendencies are a sure recipe for disappointing, indifferent results. TPS works first because it’s a system, and you can’t ignore a part of it any more than you can choose tables with only the left legs, and secondly, it delivers when you adapt yourself to it, not the other way around. This is exactly what Toyota has done, as it continues to struggle to be better at customer satisfaction, just-in-time, Jidoka and standardized work and kaizen, and THAT is the example to copy and take heart from.

4 Comments | Post a Comment
Yvan September 28, 2011

Can we really consider Lean principles as Universal ? I am currently working on a case study about the tea industry . What we have is a very seasonal , perishable product supposed to be available in various format (tea bags , caddies , pouches ) . The suppliers being all in Asia the lead times are what they are and I do not even talk about EU regulations imposing all kind of constraints. It is indeed easy to implement "lean island" with no connections with the upstream partners .
The result is huge level of inventory to cope with the unpredictable shortage , price increase , port disruption and new regulations.

Mike McGrath September 29, 2011
In the UK, they have developed a variation of TPS called Lean Construction.  This is from an email that I wrote asking a sensei if he had heard about it.

From what I have read so far it seems to take the Lean principles and applies them to Project Management.  The focus seems to be making the work flow.  This is from the wiki Lean Construction site:


"While lean construction is identical to Lean Production in spirit, it is different in how it was conceived as well how it is practiced.


The common spirit flows from shared principles:


Whole System Optimisation through Collaboration and systematic learning

continual improvement/pursuit of perfection involving everyone in the system

a focus on delivering the value desired by the owner/client/end-user

allowing value to flow by systematically eliminating obstacles to value creation and those parts of the process that create no value

creating pull production

The differences in detail flow from a recognition that construction is a project based production where the product is generally a prototype.


As Sowards stated (2004) the priority for all construction work is to:

1) keep work flowing so that the crews are always productive installing product;

2) reduce inventory of material and tools and

3) reduce costs.


While Lean Construction's main tool for improvement in construction is the Last Planner System, other lean tools already proven in manufacturing have been adapted to the construction industry with equal success. These include: 5S, Kanban, Kaizen events, quick setup/changeover, Poka Yoke, Visual Control and Five Whys (Mastroianni and Abdelhamid 2003, Salem et al. 2005). Other Lean tools may prove useful once tested in construction.


Cain (2004 [- a or b Clive?]) suggests lean construction be defined by six goals of construction best practice:



1. Finished building will deliver maximum functionality, which includes delighted end users.

2. End Users will benefit from the lowest optimum cost of ownership.

3. Inefficiency and waste in the use of labor and materials will be eliminated.

4. Specialist suppliers will be involved in design from the outset to achieve integration and buildability.

5. Design and construction will be through a single point of contact for the most effective co-ordination and clarity of responsibility.

6. Current performance and improvement achievements will be established by measurement.

"One can think of Lean Construction in a way similar to mesoeconomics. Lean Construction draws upon the principles of project-level management and upon the principles that govern production-level management. Lean Construction recognizes that any successful project undertaking will inevitably involve the interaction between project and production management." (Abdelhamid 2007)"


Schedules are negotiated and participants are expected to meet the negotiated schedule.  When there is a failure to meet an ECD, cause analysis is used to find the cause and eliminate it. 


During schedule negotiations, you are not only allowed to say no, but encouraged if there is a valid reason that something cannot be done.

"Having the right to say "no" makes real commitment possible. I am not saying people are allowed to say no on a whim, rather that they are required to say no when asked to act beyond the limits of established criteria. This sounds a lot like Ohno's radical decision to allow workers to stop the production lines."




Here are some links:












Peter Alfvin September 29, 2011

From everthing I've read, Toyota didn't "dream up" the Toyota Way.  The essence of the Toyota Way 2001 (pillars of respect of people and continuous improvement upon on base of lean thinking management) is largely derived from what they were taught by Deming and learned to appreciate over a half a century.

Rather than characterizing these principles as specific to the industry/company/time and counseling others against adopting them, why wouldn't you characterize them as part of "what we know" (per your earlier blog) that should be accepted and built upon.

Do you really see the houses derived from the Toyota Way 2001 (e.g. http://www.odd-e.com/resources/images_scaling_thinking_book/ch3_toyota_house_en.pdf) as "just another set of houses"?

Lando Nishida November 8, 2011
I believe that there are many companies having the same doubt. In my specific case, the corporate top managers already had their own Excellence "House" that shows the customers satisfaction, people development, improvements, safety, etc.

But they followed some of the Lean practices below in order to achieve their "House":
So far, they  used to have the 5 years planning and policy deployment approach with hundreds of power point slides. Then, this Lean stuff came with the A3 Reports for all CEOs of each country. What some of them have realized was that sometimes, they were defining "WHAT" they want to achieve and missing the "WHY" they were defining those objectives. Something like jumping directly to a solution. The A3 approach "forced" them to understand the logic behind their decisions with actual data and facts. Also, it was deployed to each department managers in order to achieve the main A3 goals. (The strong or weak involvement, agreement between departments is another story...). 
Sometimes, they didn't have idea about how their information and material flow was actually performing through their current process. Each of them use to be focused only in their department or area trying to solve daily problems. Then, the Lean stuff came with the Value Stream Mapping, which in one hand, showed them the overview of how inefficient they were (even some of them thought they were doing pretty well in their department). They've learned that it may open each manager's eyes to support the horizontal flow, rather than making only the vertical flow stronger.
Some of them have learned that structured problem solving practices and  Kaizen activities are the key points for putting all processes back to normal performance and constantly improving them, interacting at Genba with the people and coaching them how to solve a problem and even be part of Kaizen circle activities. The difficulty is that as they are not so familiar with technical issues at Genba, sometimes, it makes them feel uncomfortable, but some of them understood that this is just part of the learning process, and as well as they spend time at Genba, it's also an opportunity for them to understand better their process, which will help them to make the right questions to their team.
Some of those companies also started to elaborate their own guidelines to support their Kaizen activities
Other kind of improvements were achieved in some plants applying Standardized Work (mainly it worked well in countries with manual production lines with operators performing cyclic activities) Most of the plants, have quite automatized production lines, and people "work" at machines only during changeover time (where SMED was applied to reduce batch sizes). Also, Standardized Work helped them to give a meaning for their 5S standards (why do they need this stuff here and not there, and why do they need not 6 or 10 work in process here, but at minimum 3 and not more than 4)
They used to have shortages even with high stock level during high season. Pull system helped them on that point. Comparing Before /After, we may say that plants running in pull system are working with lower stock level and attending customer satisfaction level as well, even in high season (except when they have problems with the quality of raw materials from suppliers', or other external factors which usually disturb the aim to do heijunka).
Fortunately, most of their plants worldwide have automatic devices that stop the production line when something wrong happens with the product, and the Andon starts annoying the people and they should solve the problem ASAP. Unfortunately, they still keep a "guardian" of machines, due to constant problems per minute in the line and they use to consider this "guardian" as a dedicated post they should deal with... Some plants had drastically reduced the frequency of those problems (through daily morning meetings dedicated to discuss briefly about the non solved problems from last shift and follow the status of countermeasures).
There are several other lean techniques  that they had applied by each plant manager, in different countries and continents and those who had implemented learned that the most important thing is to have a clear understanding between the link of each technique, tools and why they are using those things (which problem they are trying to solve).
I think that whatever the "House" we draw as our excellence model, it will just be another internal marketing "House" in the company and it will not be so practical... 
Practical can be as well as we keep the habit of genchi genbutsu, coaching the people to systematically solve problems and the keep the kaizen spirit. Then, things may work naturally to achieve the company's objectives. This is probably applicable by any company.
The words of Mr. Cho ("Go and see; Ask why; Respect people") have the same principles for coaching somebody... (to do Kaizen)
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