Toyota the Bad Guy

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Recently I am cornered frequently by beleaguered lean change agents eager to show me their scars inflicted by re-energized resistors. Lean naysayers have seized the Toyota crisis to resist change, admonishing: "You've been telling us to 'be like Toyota.' Look at them now!"

Don't lose heart.

Let's remember why we have sought to learn from Toyota in the first place. We don't study and seek to adapt Toyota's ways because the company was perfect. Toyota was never a muda-free zone. In fact, I've never thought that the leaders who built Toyota were touched by greater genius than many other famous or influential leaders. We looked to Toyota because, for reasons of largely historical happenstance, Toyota came to embody many of the ideals we desire in human organizations. Whether one's source of inspiration is Henry Ford, W. Edwards Deming, Alfred Sloan, the Training Within Industry program, Six Sigma, Frederick Taylor, Frank & Lilian Gilbreth, Elton Mayo, Mary Parker Follett, Henri Fayol, Max Weber, Peter Drucker, Shigeo Shingo, John Dewey, Douglas McGregor, Eli Goldratt, Michael Hammer, Peter Senge, Jim Collins, Tom Peters, Russell Ackoff, Edgar Schein, or Henry Mintzberg (whew! Did that cover everybody?), the ideas and ideals represented by those individuals and initiatives found their best actualization at Toyota. At least for a period of time. Will that period of time last forever? Is it already over? While it’s too early to answer these questions, it's more important to recognize the extent to which Toyota has served as the best large-scale business organizational laboratory we've yet seen.

Culture of Control?

Even so, we must recognize that even at its peak as an organizational GPS, Toyota was never as good as its reputation in some ways, but better in others. Both at once. There are still critical pieces of the way the company worked and works that haven’t been fully explained, and that I think may still provide answers to our most vexing problems of human organization.

One particular issue concerns the tension between respecting individuals while simultaneously being extremely tough on them. Critics charge that Toyota workers must sacrifice individuality for the good of the group, following rigid rules that dictate nearly every facet of their working lives. A recent article delving into this issue, "'Toyota Man's' conformist ways come under fire" (John M. Glionna, March 22, 2010), included the statement that, "The real 'Toyota Way' is a culture of control," says Masaki Saruta, a business professor at Japan's Chukyo University. The article goes on to say, "… guidelines dictate nearly every facet of employees' day -- how they turn corners while walking on company property, where they eat their lunch and even how they conduct themselves at home. At the Toyota plant here, workers cannot put their hands in their pockets. Hall monitors report scofflaws. Commuters who drive to work must report their routes to bosses. Those taking trips on days off must file such details as where they stopped for breaks…"

People who read this article ask me "Is that horrific description actually true?"

There are indeed aspects of that article that are - or WERE - true. That was also part of the Toyota Way. Toyota was never perfect, rather merely "relentlessly seeking perfection" as the phrase goes. Some of the things described in that damning article are (or WERE, anyway) true, but for the most part they also represent dimensions of Toyota during its formative period that some company leaders wanted to change. Turns out, it is not - news flash - so easy to change. Many Toyota leaders have - sometimes consciously, sometimes not - long desired to rid the company of precisely those less attractive dimensions described in the article.

No Hands in Pockets

None of this is new news. Toyota has always had its share of critics in Japan.
A communist sympathizing journalist joined Toyota as an assembly line worker in the early 70s and wrote up his experience in a scathing attack in a book called in English "Japan in the Passing Lane." The original Japanese title was something like "Hell Factory Toyota." The book was clearly a one-sided account, dissected expertly in a critical introduction written for the English edition by R. P. Dore.

In response to the question, "Is there really a 'hall monitor' to enforce 'no hands in pockets' rules?" Well, I don't know about "hall monitors." But hands-in-pockets was absolutely a no-no at Toyota in the old days. Hall monitors not needed, your friendly boss would do just fine. There was a logic to explain it.

  1. Safety. You don't want people falling on their faces with their hands in their pockets.
  2. Respect. This one has several sides to it.
    1. Japanese custom.
    2. Hands free exhibits a posture of "ready to help," especially in the factory.
    3. And it exhibits a decidedly disrespectful posture relative to those working on an assembly line who have no opportunity to leisure about with their hands in their pockets.

This is one of the many cultural artifacts that made its way haltingly across the Pacific. I recall witnessing more than one occasion of Japanese managers slapping the hands of American employees as they began sliding into their pockets. Not just in the factory either. I still recall the shocked expression of a 30-something office manager as my own boss smacked his hands with an audible thwap.

Two Worlds

If Toyota - the old Toyota, anyway - were a person, he would be a pretty tough guy. An old-fashioned disciplinarian. The stern football coach who gets in his players' faces ala Vince Lombardi of the old Green Bay Packers. If not throwing things like basketball's Bobby Knight, no calm Duke Coach K either. NBA coach Pat Riley tells players, "I need your voluntary cooperation to push you further than you will want to go…" Toyota would be the military drill instructor who might push you to the breaking point but who would also give his life for you in battle. Tough love, as they say. Maybe not for everyone, but definitely part of the Toyota Way.

Respect isn't necessarily about making individuals feel good in an abstract way. As Jim Womack said in his e-letter of December 2007, "Respect for People," "The manager challenges the employees every step of the way, asking for more thought, more facts, and more discussion, when the employees just want to implement their favored solution. Over time I've come to realize that this problem solving process is actually the highest form of respect."

So, a degree of "toughness" may be called for at times, especially in the dirty business of manufacturing something like a car. The process of several thousand people working together to assemble tens of thousands of parts that converge once per minute to comprise an automobile is tough work, demanding legitimate discipline. Still, there were instances at the old Toyota when many observers would understandably cry foul. And I imagine vestiges of that Toyota can still be found lurking around, especially at the end of a bad day. But these are also dimensions of the company that decades ago some leaders recognized as needing change. Chairman Fujio Cho and others have sought a Toyota that represents the best of both worlds. The best of "both" worlds on numerous dimensions: old and new, east and west, north and south, tradition and change, stern yet fair. Always improving, changing, built on utilizing and embodying the best we can hope for as humans working together for human purposes. That's the goal: then there's that plan versus actual thing.


John Shook
Senior Advisor
Lean Enterprise Institute

14 Comments | Post a Comment
Jamie Flinchbaugh April 12, 2010
Thanks for your comments John.

There are two problems with lean changes agents spending a lot of time on this.

First, lean should not be about being like Toyota. It never should have been, and shouldn't be in the future. Learn from them, yes. But the extent of your vision as a change agent should extend beyond being "the Toyota of your industry."

Second, the resistors are the wrong place to put a lot of focus. Focus instead on those moving forward. If someone is using this situation to say "I told you so" then there wasn't any amount of data that was going to convince them anyway. They are stuck unless the visible evidence, inside their own company, is so strong they no longer can afford to ignore it.

The point is, don't waste a lot of time on this debate with people. It sounds important, but it's not really helping you move forward.

Jamie Flinchbaugh
Sue April 13, 2010
Interesting and insightful post

Just a suggestion regarding your blog site - how about using black font color rather than the light blue? The light blue is difficult to read and I usually end up printing it out in order to be able to see it clearly.
Mark Rosenthal April 13, 2010
I think this will help the practitioners in the long haul.

Instead of beating people over the head about Toyota, now the system must stand on its own merits as the right thing to do in your specific situation.

This is going to flush out the people who are copying tools by rote vs. the ones who understand the "why" behind the tools, and implementing the thinking behind them.

So - rather than make excuses for Toyota's limitations, we need to look at product, process, people in the specific situations and solve the specific problems.
Jacob April 14, 2010
Despite the negative press Toyota has received over the last few months... anyone who is involved in manufacturing can't honestly dispute that the Toyota Production System is still the gold standard for all manufacturers. To date there has been no better 'Way'.
Mark Welch April 15, 2010
I think that those of us who consistently touted Toyota are the ones who are taking this hit the hardest. But even they can deal with this flak very well by simply telling this story as it actually unfolded, which is to say that Toyota simply didn't follow their own fundamental aspect of developing people before making product (the gist of Akio Toyoda's testimony before congress). Had they followed this principle as they have espoused it, Toyota wouldn't be facing their current issues. So, in the end, Toyota's principle of people before product still holds true as it always has. Thing is, they lost sight of it and they are suffering the consequences of it - which are the same plagues that hurt American manufacturers for years (and still do).
Paul Teicholz April 15, 2010
From what I have read about Toyota, I do not think their problems have much to do with their production system. Rather, the push to become bigger (than GM and others) from the top has caused them to take their eyes off the quality issues and focus on getting out more cars, SUVs and trucks. They simply became over extended and lost their focus (not the first time this has happened). I am sure that after they get control over their current problems, their concerns for quality will resume and Toyota will recover its reputation, but it will take time. Lean production (or its lack) is not the culprit.
Joe April 21, 2010
It is truly amazing that Toyota's CEO apologized and admitted that they let shabby quality go by for the sake of revenue. Remember the Japanese had 50 years to get quality down to a science with the help of our Doctor Deming after World War two. The key to success is to give the customer what they want and when they want it at a fair price and with outstanding quality.
Chak April 22, 2010
In a Lean Software Development forum, somebody had asked whether any research had been done co-relating the number of suicides to the loss of individuality in Japanese and 'Lean' teams.

That intriguing question came to my mind when i read about the importance given to team building in this blog.
Bob MacPherson May 3, 2010
My experience with people is that although we cheer the winner, we also come to resent them when they win too often. Human nature drives many people to attack the wounded giant when he stumbles. More importantly in this case, those who had a grudge against Toyota in the first place now have an audience who is made up of the people who may harbor some of that resentment. Look at all of those quoted in this and other articles against Toyota, Union organizers, professors with books to sell, foreigners who came to see but only used  their own eyes instead of the eyes of those they were observing. Its rather pathetic if you think about it. Our job is to keep emphasizing the positive aspects to lean. When I do feel the need to answer these attacks, I choose to educate people about sources and journalism. In newspapers and TV there is an old saying: if it bleeds it leads. Toyota is bleeding right now and writers of articles like this are doing nothing more than reporting a horrible story to sell papers/airtime. Thanks John for some good thoughts.
Eric Carlson May 26, 2010
John - I am preparing an A3 training module and have used your excellent book as a reference.  An area that seems missing is resource allocation.  That is, when many A3's are in process, they may want the same resources at the same time.  How does Toyota resolve this? 

When I was in R&D we had a similar problem - many R&D projects impacting the same resource at the same time such as the test lab.  Our countermeasure was/is to use MS Project for each R&D project and then weekly roll all projects into a "master" to identify resource conflicts.  R&D management then decides which projects have priority.

Thanks, Eric C.
Jose Barrera July 1, 2010
Just courious......any more postings coming?.....
Dan Barch July 27, 2010
Seems everyone wants the discipline of a good company without the discipline.  WK Kellogg (founder of the Cereal company) was known to fire anyone he caught smoking, on the job or off.  Henry Ford spied on his employees. Was this 'people deveopment'? 
Maybe not, but it did show interest.

Ben Franklin said "If you would teach your child, teach him first discipline, after which you can teach him whatever you please." 

These examples (hand smacking) are shocking only to a recent generation (anyone grow up in a Catholic school?).  Results are we can't get folks to focus on a meeting because of e-mail and cell phones.  Maybe we should look at the lesson and not shoot the messenger.
Jean Wallace August 27, 2010

A view I'm sure you share is how we will miss Jim but I am looking forward to reading your newsletters seeing the direction you will go.  Congratulations and best wishes for success.

Jack Parsons September 2, 2010
I think that we need to learn to distinguish between the universal principles of TPS that yield great results and that can be applied in different societies and cultures vs. some of the traditional Japanese cultural traits and habits mentioned in the article. As an employee of another Japanese OEM, I recall being chastised for having my hands in my pockets by a Japanese manager during a new model evaluation event held in a unheated and cold building in Japan. My excuse was that my hands were cold, but that excuse was not acceptable to this manager.
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