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"But TPS Doesn't Apply to Us...."

by Mark Graban
March 25, 2019

"But TPS Doesn't Apply to Us...."

by Mark Graban
March 25, 2019 | Comments (6)

One comment on Jeff Liker’s recent Lean Post about Tesla brought up the notion of people saying “[we are] different, we make no cars, we can't apply TPS.” If you’ve tried to introduce Lean in a setting outside of the automotive industry, you’ve likely heard the complaint of “we’re different” (as I blogged about back in 2009).

It can be true that “you’re different” while the implication of “therefore, Lean doesn’t apply here” is, at the same time, false. It’s unfortunate, and it slows down progress when people frame the discussion as “we’re different” instead of asking, “How can we apply (and adapt) these approaches to our organization?”

In healthcare, we’ve all heard statements “patients aren’t cars” and “a hospital is not a factory.” (I’ve written about this before, too.) These statements are factually correct, but Lean has been proven to help in healthcare (as in many other settings).

I’ve been fortunate to take three trips to Japan with healthcare executives, physicians, and Lean practitioners from around the world. We visited Toyota, other factories, and a few hospitals that were on their Lean journey.

One required stop, in Nagoya, is The Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology.

As you walk through, you see artifacts like the Toyota “AA” car that was first produced in 1936:

AA car

This car is located about mid-way through the museum. Why is that? The first part of the museum covers Toyota’s early corporate history, starting with being founded by Sakichi Toyoda as “Toyota Automatic Loom Works, Ltd.” in 1926.

So what did Toyoda, the company, do for 10 years before their car was produced? Go back and read that again... “automatic loom works.” What’s that?

early loom

You can also see a short video I shot of one of those looms in operation a few years back.

The amazing thing that you learn (and see demonstrated) is how the “Type G” loom, from 1924 was designed to stop automatically when it detected a broken thread. Here is another photo of one of those looms:

type G loom

So, this is the origin story for the concept of “jidoka” or the idea of built-in quality, as their sign explained:

jidoka origin

We might also call this “error proofing” and it’s an early example of stopping production when there is a quality problem. If the machine didn’t stop automatically, it would have to be attended to by a worker. There was a one-to-one ratio of workers to looms because they had to manually watch and stop the machine when the thread broke. Otherwise, a defective cloth would look like this (with two runs marked by the red arrows):

cloth defects

In modern Lean and TPS, we often talk about “person-machine separation” meaning that a person isn’t stuck just watching a machine run. The innovations of the Type G loom allowed much greater productivity, as a worker could “run” or monitor “30 to 50 looms.”

productivity quote

All of these TPS and Lean concepts were created prior to 1936. It has always made me wonder if the newly-formed Toyota Motor Company had some people who looked at the lessons from Toyoda Automatic Loom Works and then said, “But we’re different! We don’t make weaving looms!”

Yes, cars are not weaving looms. Patients are not cars, either. Airplanes are not cars. Electric vehicles are not the same as internal-combustion engine vehicles. We can play that “one of these things is not like the other” game all day long. A better use of time, perhaps, is to think about how TPS concepts and high-level Lean management principles can be adapted to your own setting.

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6 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani March 25, 2019
5 People AGREE with this comment

A wise man once said: “Spending a lot of time and negative energy lamenting the people and organizations who do not want to improve themselves or others is generally not worthwhile.” Why not move on and work with the people who say: "I can see how Lean applies to us. Let's try it!"

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Chad March 26, 2019

Good morning Bob!

This is indeed a wise statement. I would love to be in a situation like that. However, many of us who believe in/apply/teach Lean exist in organizations where getting past a negative mindset is a significant endeavor. What advice do you have for individuals in such roles/situations?

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Andrew Bishop March 26, 2019

I'm not Bob, but I'll share my thoughts -

I think there are two main options:


GO SEE:  If the naysayers see a good example, it may capture their imagination concerning their own work.  Take them on a field trip (and spare them the word "gemba"!)


DEMONSTRATE:  Get something going on your home turf, so they can see it there.  Again, capture their imagination.


In the end, it's like the old joke:  How many sensei does it take to change a light bulb?  Just one, but the light bulb has to want to change!

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Bob Emiliani March 26, 2019

Hi Chad - One has to think of lots of ideas and try them all out. When you run out of ideas, then gain new information to inspire new ideas (https://tinyurl.com/y6vz9kdx) and try them out too. There is no easy answer, as you know. Only effort and imagination can overcome the formidable barriers we face. 

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Andrew Bishop March 25, 2019
5 People AGREE with this comment

Nicely said! If I were to write a memoir of my experience teaching and managing lean it might be called We're different, it will work here, having lived this in ornamental horticulture and now practicing in healthcare.
Yes, it is about concepts and principles and, yes, there are important differences between industries. Too often folks bringing lean to a new setting don't have a sufficiently deep grasp of either the underlying principles and concepts of lean or the workings of the system they are setting out to support. Both are required to develop appropriate applications and lead meaningful change. You have to embrace the differences in systems of work and then apply principles.

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sid joynson March 25, 2019
6 People AGREE with this comment

When people respond to talk of TPS with, “We don't make cars", I agree with them; but then go on to explain that the goal of all the activities in TPS, is to produce delighted customers. This is done by identifying & satisfying all their physical & emotional needs along the CEP, customer experience pathway. Toyota achieve this result by producing cars, in a hospital we achieve it by producing recovered patients at the end of the PEP, patient experience pathway. This result must be achieved using the minimum resources & using the maximum resourcefulness and abilities of all their people.

This then gives us the 3R’s,   Results - maximum & continuously improving.                Resources – use minimum, eliminate waste. Resourcefulness – maximise, engage the abilities of all our people.

There is a 4th R, Respect. From my own experience we must see ‘RESPECT’ as the password that gives access to the files that contains our people’s total ability. This is one of the key bonding elements between managers and their people.

Our ultimate goal is to create organisations that achieve world class levels of performance & are continuously improving. The must also be secure, challenging, fulfilling & enjoyable/fun places to work.

What is not to like?

We must create Patient Experience Pathways, which give the most appropriate/enjoyable experiences for Patients and our people.


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