Toyota’s Dilemma over NUMMI

Toyota says it may shut Fremont’s NUMMI auto plant – San Jose Mercury News

Part of the aftermath of GM’s implosion is that Toyota is left holding the bag on the NUMMI joint venture. The plant primarily built vehicles for GM (the Pontiac Vibe), but was essentially managed by Toyota as a Toyota operation. A lot has been written about GM’s failure to truly learn from this opportunity, but that is now in the past.

What is in the present, and the future, is the fate of the plant itself. Toyota does not need this factory. And if Toyota were being run the way U.S. automakers are, there wouldn’t have been a decision. As soon as GM backed out, the layoff notices would have been issued, and the gates locked. Period. Politically, that probably would have been the best move for Toyota. Let GM make the decision, and reluctantly go along. They had a great opportunity to do that last week when the press was preoccupied with the death of a high-profile celebrity.

But they didn’t do that. Enough time has passed that the plant is now 100% associated with Toyota. (Remember, in our 24/7 news cycle, a week or two is an eternity.)

So now they are stuck. The fate of this plant is Toyota’s and Toyota’s alone.

Here is a thought.

GM is not the only auto manufacturer with something to learn from Toyota, and almost anyone could (if they set about doing it right) learn more than GM ever did. Maybe someone can step up and seize what is, in my mind, a golden opportunity.

Jim Collins: How the Mighty Fall – Business Week

I am a big fan of Jim Collins. His book Good to Great outlines attributes that I have seen in every successful organizational transformation.

Now he has a new book out. I haven’t read it yet, so I am not going to offer a review, just tell you about it. But the title and premise is intriguing:
How The Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In

There is a great article and excerpt of the book on Business Week online, including  a video of Jim Collins describing the stages (preceded by a short advertisement).

In short, Collins’ research shows that a great company can fall, and when it happens, there are five stages of decline. According to Collins, Stages One through Three are invisible from outside. The company looks great, but it is rotting from within. It is only at Stage Four that things visibly go south, and they do so very quickly. But there is also good news: The company can recover and return to greatness from any of the stages one through four, but not five.

While this whole story is fascinating, it is the nature of Stage Four that brings things into pretty sharp focus for me.

The stages are:

Stage 1: The Hubris of Success. Things are going great, and the company acquires a sense of entitlement for that success. “We deserve this success because we are so good!” In Collins’ words:

When the rhetoric of success (“We’re successful because we do these specific things”) replaces penetrating understanding and insight (“We’re successful because we understand why we do these specific things and under what conditions they would no longer work”), decline will very likely follow.

I think this idea of “penetrating understanding and insight” is what characterizes the idealized Toyota Production System. It is also seen in every example that Steven Spear covers in Chasing the Rabbit.

When an organization shifts away from questioning its own success as thoroughly as its failures, and begins to assume that its continued success is simply a matter of continuing to do what they have been doing, the seeds of decline are sown.

This ship is unsinkable.

Stage 2: Undisciplined Pursuit of More.

Companies in Stage 2 stray from the disciplined creativity that led them to greatness in the first place, making undisciplined leaps into areas where they cannot be great or growing faster than they can achieve with excellence—or both.

This one really struck me. Is this the what Toyota went through in the last 5-7 years in their pursuit of #1? Clearly they overreached, even they say so. Even as early as 2003 they were seeing eroding of the TPS discipline in their North American and European plants. They shored that up, and continued their aggressive expansion of production capacity, got into big trucks, and in general seemed to bypass their traditional patient-and-relentless growth strategy.

Other industries suffered this as well. The last few years saw unprecedented (and it turned out, artificially generated) growth in sales across sectors. As one of my friends put it “When times are this good, everybody’s a genius.” Put another way, when there is more demand than supply, even a “supplier of last resort” gets great business, and it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking it is because “our products are great, and customers like us.” It is possible to carry that belief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary – like customers telling you to your face that they bought your stuff because they couldn’t get it from your competitors.

Inventories start to grow, quickly, as nobody wants to miss a sale; factories are expanded, quickly, for the same reason. There is almost a fear of failure here, but it is fear of failure to get more rather than failure to succeed. If success is taken for granted (see Stage One), this one follows pretty directly.

We are going to set an Atlantic crossing speed record.

Here is a question: Who didn’t experience this to some degree over the last 5 years?

Things get interesting next.

Stage 3: Denial of Risk and Peril. There are warning signs of over-reaching, that things are not going to go this way forever. But what struck me more was the cultural aspect: Shutting out the truth.

In Stage 3, leaders discount negative data, amplify positive data, and put a positive spin on ambiguous data. Those in power start to blame external factors for setbacks rather than accept responsibility. The vigorous, fact-based dialogue that characterizes high-performance teams dwindles or disappears altogether.

When leaders start suppressing dissenting views, when they equate disagreement with disrespect or unhealthy conflict, they start insulating themselves in a cocoon of denial.

If the organization is pre-disposed to avoid conflict to begin with, then this stage is really easy to slide into. Vigorous debate is part of sound decision making. When that stops, or is never allowed to surface in the first place, the organization is self-centered and vulnerable.

When leaders start attributing the warning signs to anomalous, one-time, temporary factors – and believing they are exercising that penetrating understanding and insight when, in reality, the “analysis” is no more than the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion they have shifted from rationality to internal belief-based decision making. (also called “wishcraft.”)

Reports of ice ahead.

Stage 4: Grasping for Salvation.

The cumulative peril and/or risks gone bad of Stage 3 assert themselves, throwing the enterprise into a sharp decline visible to all. The critical question is: How does its leadership respond? By lurching for a quick salvation or by getting back to the disciplines that brought about greatness in the first place?

So things have gone to hell in a handcart, and the leadership starts looking around for how to get out of the spin. They have ignored all of the warning signs up to this point, but now they are undeniably in trouble. What to do?

As I said, this is where it gets really interesting from a personal / professional level.

There is no doubt that, at this moment, the proverbial “burning platform” exists. There is clearly a sense of urgency… Pick your clichés from “change management” literature here.

“Hey – I just read this book about lean. Let’s bring in this hot-shot consultant to lean us out.” And so it begins. The Search for the Silver Bullet – the magic that will fix everything. And it doesn’t have to be “lean.” It might be x-Sigma (put your favorite buzzword in place of the ‘x’). Maybe everybody reads The Goal and starts looking for constraints. Or the leaders leap from “program” to “program” looking for the solution. While each “initiative” is kicked off with great deliberate fanfare, in reality the leaders are panicing.

They fail to see that leaders atop companies in the late stages of decline need to get back to a calm, clear-headed, and focused approach. If you want to reverse decline, be rigorous about what not to do.

Here is my take on this. These leaders who leap from “solution” to “solution” are still in hubris and denial. They are still looking outside of themselves for the problem, and the solution.

My last post, How the Sensei Teaches, describes leaders who teach by being students. This requires humility, something totally incompatible with hubris. If they want to bring in that hot-shot consultant, they need to tell her “We really need help up here, please teach us” rather than “Go teach our people how to be lean.” They need that consultant to be a true sensei, not just a technician.

Oh – what is Stage Five? Collins calls it Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death.

My words are “The boat sinks.”

How The Sensei Teaches

In a previous post, I talked about Steven Spear’s observation about how a sensei saw a process and the problems. Jeffery Liker, Mike Hoseus and David Meier have done a good job capturing how a sensei teaches and summed it up in a diagram in the book Toyota Culture. (for those of you following at home, the diagram is figure 18.9 on page 541).

I want to dissect this model a bit and share some of the thoughts I had.

This is the whole diagram:

How a sensei teaches

This diagram strikes me in a couple of ways.

Let’s zoom in to the left hand side.


I’m calling the part I’ve highlighted in red the “sensei do-it-loop.” That is, the sensei says “Do this,” the students do it, then the sensei says “Now, do this.” Repeat.

While this first loop is the starting point, all too often, it is also the ending point.

And in this loop, process improvement actually happens, everybody applauds at the Friday report-out. The participants may even prepare a summary of key learning points. And perhaps, as follow up, they will apply the same tools in a similar situation. (As much as I hope for this outcome, though, it doesn’t happen as often as I would like.)

A lot of consulting engagements go on this way for many years. Some go decades. I am sure processes improve, and I am equally sure it is very lucrative for those consultants. But even if they are extraordinarily skilled at seeing improvement opportunities and pointing them out, these consultants are not sensei in the meaning of this diagram. That distinction is made clear in the next section.

This is where the learning happens.

Sensei Learning

I have highlighted the learning loop in red.

The sensei is primarily interested in developing people so that they can see the opportunities and improve the processes themselves. He wants to move them along the continuum from “Do” to “Think” so that they understand, not only this process, but learn how to think about processes in general. When the sensei asks the questions, he is forcing people to articulate their understanding to him. He is really saying “teach me.” In this way he pushes people to deepen their own understanding from “think it through” to “understand it well enough to explain to someone else.”

Think about Taiichi Ohno’s famous “chalk circle.” The “DO THIS” was “stand here and watch the process.” He had seen some problem, and wanted the (hapless) manager to learn to see it as well. Ohno didn’t point it out, he just directed their eyes. His “test” was “What do you see?,” essentially repeated until the student “got it.”

The second leap here is from “Think” to “Self Learning.” At this point, people have learned to ask the questions of themselves, and of each other.  So when he asks his questions, the sensei is not merely interested in the answers as a CHECK of learning, he is also teaching people the questions.

These questions are also a form of “reflection.” They are a CHECK of what was planned vs. what was done; and what was intended vs. what was accomplished. The ACT in this case is to think through the process of improvement itself, not simply what was improved.

Until people learn to do this, “Self Learning” does not occur, and the team is forever dependent on external resources (the sensei, consultants) to push themselves.

But the sensei is not through. Once people have a sense of self-learning, the next level is capability to teach others. “All leaders as teachers.”

Learning to Teaching

Someone, I don’t know who, once said that teaching is the best learning. I can certainly say that my own experiences back this up. My greatest ah-ha moments have come when I was trying to explain a concept, not when it was being explained to me.

I would contend, therefore, that a true sensei is not so much one who has mastered the subject, but rather one who has mastered the role of the eternal student. It is mastery in learning that sets apart the very best in a field.

Thus the sensei‘s work is not done until he has imparted this skill to the organization.

As the leaders challenge their people to thoroughly understand the process, the problems, to explore the solutions, so do the leaders challenge themselves to understand as well.

They test their people’s knowledge by asking questions. They test the process knowledge of their people by expecting their people to teach them, the leaders, about the process. Thus, by making people teach, they drive their people to learn in ways they never would have otherwise. The leader teaches by being the student. The student learns by teaching. And the depth of skill and knowledge in the entire organization grows quickly, and without bound.

So Here Is Your Question:

If your organization is typical of most who are treating “lean” as something to “implement” you have the following:

You have a cadre of technical specialists. Their job, primarily, is to seek out opportunities for kaizen, assemble the team of people, teach them the mechanics, then guide them through making process improvements that hit the targets. This is often done over the course of 5 days, but there are variations on this. The key point is that the staff specialists are delegated the job of evangalizing “lean” and teaching it to the people on the shop floor.

Again, if it is typical, there is some kind of reporting structure up to management. How many kaizens have you run? What results have you delivered? How many people have been trained? Managers show their commitment and support by participating in these events periodically, by attending the report-outs, and by paying attention to these reports and follow-up of action items.

Now take what you have just read, and ask yourselves – “Are we getting beyond the first loop, or are we forever just implementing what is in the books?”

How are you reinforcing the learning?

Who is responsible to learn by teaching?

I’ll share a secret with you about a recent post. When Paul and I took Earl through his own warehouse that Friday night, neither of us had been in there before. While I can’t speak for Paul, everything I knew about warehouse operations and crossdocks, I learned from Earl. I didn’t teach him anything that night. Paul and I did, however, push him to teach us, and in doing so, he learned a great deal.

Kaizen Express – and the Lean Enterprise Institute

The Lean Enterprise Institute has recently published Kaizen Express, an overview of the classic characteristics of “lean manufacturing” and, by implication, the Toyota Production System. As I set out to review the book, I found myself heading in two directions.

One is the content of the book itself.

Over the years, there have been a slew of books with similar tables of contents that describe the various mechanics and mechanisms observed in the Toyota Production System.

The first really comprehensive reference in English was Productivity Press’s translation of Hirano’s JIT Implementation Manual. (Originally a two volume set priced at $900, it appears it is about to be published in a second edition for around $200. I have not seen the second edition.) Back in the early and mid 1980’s, Hirano was about the only comprehensive reference out there. At Boeing we had internal-use reproduction rights, and many of us poured over those volumes, parsing every word.

Kiyoshi Suzuki’s New Manufacturing Challenge (1987) was the book we gave out to all of our suppliers. It, too, provides a pretty good overview of most of the tools and techniques. It is a good basic reference, and I still believe it really takes about three years for a practitioner to outgrow it.

At a more technical level, we have had Toyota Production System: An Integrated Approach to Just-In-Time by Yusuhiro Monden. This book goes into more depth from a system engineering standpoint, and focuses mostly on “Toyota’s production system” vs. a more generic approach.

These three titles are by no means the only ones. A couple of feet of my own bookshelf is occupied with books covering the same basic topics. I only mention these three only because they have been my workhorse references, especially in the days when I was still putting together my own mental models.

Kaizen Express is well at home with this family. It is a solid overview of the tools and techniques that generally characterize “lean manufacturing” and I can quibble with nothing that is in the book.

The presentation itself harks back to the days when all of the decent references came out of Japan. It is a bilingual book, written in Japanese language and graphic style with English translation along side.

On a sidebar note: As a practitioner, dealing with shop floor people and their sensibilities and values, I would rather use a reference that didn’t come across as so foreign. While I fully appreciate that the Japanese vocabulary is a solidly embedded part of Toyota’s culture, that is not the case elsewhere, and some Toyota-trained practitioners would do well to keep that in mind. The concepts are difficult enough to get across without having to overcome language resistance. Add to that the unfortunate truth that many countries, especially in Asia, still have vivid cultural memories of a far more malevolent Japan, and the resistance just increases. I would not give a copy of this book out in China or Korea, for example. There are others which serve the same purpose without bringing up unresolved issues. Memories and emotions run much longer and deeper in Asia than they do in the West.

All of those reservations aside, this book is a welcome review of familiar material.

Now, the second part. I want to go beyond the book itself, and look at its context. This becomes not so much a review of the book, but one person’s opinion (mine, to be sure) of the state of our communities understanding of the Toyota Production System itself.

The TPS is somewhat unique among all of the various “management systems” in the popular business press today in that it grew organically rather than being explicitly designed. Thus, rather than consult standard documents to learn about it, knowledge comes from research.

In the early days, through the late 1980’s, the topic of “JIT” or “Japanese manufacturing techniques” was a quiet, esoteric backwater of consultants and a few committed practitioners. We knew about Harley Davidson, and some of the other early adopters. Danaher was just getting started, and some of the household name early leaders were starting to gain meaningful experience and reputations. The knowledge base came from practitioners trying to make it work, rather than professional academics who are in the business of developing and testing rigorous theory.

In late 1990, everything changed. The Machine That Changed the World by Womack, Jones and Roos published the results of good, solid research from MIT and became a hot seller. It broke out of the practitioner’s technical corral, got the attention of mainline executives and managers, and introduced the buzzwords “lean production” (which later morphed into “lean manufacturing”) into the lexicon of everyday business.

This was followed by Lean Thinking which profiled a number of these companies and put Shingijutsu on everyone’s radar.

The Lean Enterprise Institute was founded shortly thereafter, and in the late 1990’s published Learning to See and introduced everyone to value stream mapping. This was the first of a series of workbooks designed to take the practitioner through the mechanics of implementing various aspects of the basic elements of modern manufacturing techniques.

These workbooks were something new. Rather than the encyclopedic approach of a single book devoting short chapters to descriptions of the various tools, these workbooks went into much more depth on a single topic, such as materials distribution, creating a work cell, the basics of heijunka or mentoring someone through solving a problem.

In the background of all of this, “lean manufacturing” became the hot topic. Writers, consultants, managers were all talking about how to “get lean” and to “lean out” a business. Hundreds of books were published on the topic, a few of them good, many of them re-hashing old stuff in new ways, a few just using the buzzwords to sell bad information.

This explosion resulted in a lot of noise pollution. What had started as peer-reviewed academic research of the automobile industry turned into the “lean industry” – a crowded, bustling bazaar with everyone hawking and touting their “solutions.” This, by the way, included a mountain of junk academic research.

But there was also some really exceptional academic research, especially out of Harvard. While everyone was busy implementing the tools of lean – the things in the tables of contents of all of those books, the success rate was a far cry from the promise. I have experienced this myself a couple of times. But Steven Spear made it the topic of his 1999 groundbreaking PhD thesis at Harvard. Let me quote, and offer my interpretation, of a few key sentences from the abstract of his dissertation.

Researchers have established that Toyota enjoys advantages in cost, quality, lead-time, and flexibility when compared to its competitors in automotive assembly.

There is no doubt here. It’s why we are all reading this stuff in the first place! And while there was considerable anecdotal evidence before that, The Machine That Changed the World offered up a solid base of good research to confirm what everybody was thinking.

Differences in generating value have been attributed to differences between the Toyota Production System (“TPS”) and alternative management systems. Distinctive tools and practices have been associated with TPS.

Those “tools and practices” are what are covered in the classic books I cited earlier. They are also what is covered in Kaizen Express if not by industry in general, certainly by the community of experts.

However, evidence suggests that merely copying these [tools and practices] does not generate the performance advantages enjoyed by Toyota. This has prompted several questions … [including] … why is it so difficult to imitate?

So we (the community of experts) were happily out the there doing the stuff that was in the books, teaching the basics, trying to implement them, and finding it generally difficult to get a lot of traction once the initial novelty wears off.

Meanwhile, the noisy bazaar continued to churn out more and more “solutions” aimed at the “gaps in lean manufacturing.”

“Lean looks at waste, but doesn’t address variation…” so “Sigma” was spliced in. Yet Toyota obsesses on stability and eliminating variation at levels we cannot even fathom.

“We need someone to implement quality in our lean company.” Hello? How can you leave out quality? Yet in our efforts to implement flow and reduce inventory, we did it all of the time!

We try to bring kaizen into administrative and creative process flows – well enough, but upon finding that the “tools and techniques” need to be adjusted somewhat, people draw the conclusion that there is more to it.

All of these things, over the last ten or fifteen years seemed to make things very complex indeed.

So we go back to the basics.

I agree with the principle. But we need to discuss exactly what the basics are.

The second paragraph of Steven Spear’s abstract is pretty clear:

… the tools and practices that have received attention are not fundamental to TPS.

(emphasis added)

Then he brings up things that the rest of us never talk about:

… the … Rules-In-Use promote distinctive organizational features. These are nested, modular [organizational] structure; frequent, finely grained self-diagnostics; and frequent, structured, directed problem solving that is the primary mechanism for training and process improvement.

(emphasis added) (For explanation of what Spear means by “Rules-In-Use” read the dissertation itself, or Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System, which is the HBR summary of his conclusions. Personally, I “got it” a lot better from the dissertation, but then he has 465 pages to make his points vs. 10 pages in the article.)

What has all of this got to do with the little green book, Kaizen Express?

I think it is a great book, for 1991.

But this is 2009. So while Kaizen Express is a welcome refresher of the mechanics, those mechanics are, according to the current standing theory, built upon a foundation of something that Kaizen Express, and for that matter, the LEI has not, to date, addressed. What is missing, in my view, is how the tools and practices outlined in Kaizen Express and its predecessors actually drive daily continuous improvement that engages every team member in the process.

Anyone out there is perfectly welcome to refute Spear’s research and make a compelling case that “the fundamentals” are, indeed, the things addressed in Kaizen Express. But to do so means bringing credible peer-reviewed, published research to the table. It means building a compelling case of documented observations that contradict Spear’s theory. Anything else is simply conjecture.

My challenge to the Lean Enterprise Institute: Your organization is unique. It emerged from the world of academia with very solid credentials, with a great mission to carry this message to the non-academic world. Because of its academic origins, LEI has a real opportunity to be the bridge between the cutting-edge understanding coming out of these top-flight research institutions and translate it into practical things the rest of us can put to use. Extend your charter to taking PhD words like “nested modular structure” and “frequent finely grained self-diagnostics” and giving the daily practitioners some workbooks that lay out how to do it.

Kaizen Express is a great little book.

LEI can do better, though, than to re-publish material that has been out there since 1988.

Back to Basics

The Lean Enterprise Institute is taking up a “Back to Basics” theme.

But what, exactly, are “the basics” of the Toyota Production System?

This is critically important. Permit me to cite an analogy.

Look at a house. What do you see? What would you say are “the basics?”

At first glance, all houses have walls, a roof. They have a door. They are divided into rooms for various activities and purposes. A “basic house” is going to have an entry, a living room, a kitchen, a couple of bedrooms, a bathroom. More complex houses will have more rooms, fancier architecture, higher grades of materials, be bigger, but the basics are all there.

OK, that is a basic house.

I make this point because when people talk about the basics of “lean manufacturing” they talk about the things you can see. If I open up Learning to See, and turn to the “Green Tab” the chapter’s title is “What Makes A Value Stream Lean.” That chapter is primarily (right after the talk about waste and overproduction) a list and description of “Characteristics of a Lean Value Stream.”

  1. Produce to your takt time.
  2. Develop continuous flow wherever possible.
  3. Use supermarkets to control production where continuous flow does not extend upstream.
  4. Try to send the customer schedule to only one production process.
  5. Distribute the production of different products over time at the pacemaker process (level the production mix).
  6. Create an “initial pull” by releasing and withdrawing small, consistent increments of work at the pacemaker process. (Level the production volume).
  7. Develop the ability to make “every part every day” (then every shirt, then every hour or pallet or pitch) in fabrication processes upstream of the pacemaker process.

Now I have to say right now that I have always loved this chapter. I cannot count the number of people I have referred to “The Green Tab” as a fundamental primer. It includes all of the basics, just like our house.

In their latest book, Kaizen Express, the LEI has brought out some more detail on these same points, and added a few “rooms” to the house. One critical aspect they add is various topics that add up to quality. (It’s kind of like leaving out the kitchen or the bathroom if you don’t mention that.) They talk about zone control, line stop, and countermeasures to quality problems. (I will do a full review on this book soon.)

Then on page 99 starts four pages on Employee Involvement where they talk about practical kaizen training (PKT), and suggestion programs.

Let’s go back to our house. The things we said were “the basics” were the things you see when you look at it from the street, and go inside and walk around in it. But in an industrialized country, the modern single family residence is a miracle of accumulated knowledge and technology. The basics are the things that keep it from sinking into the ground, from catching on fire, from leaking and rotting. They are the things you can’t see, but unless you understand them, your house may look like the one next door, but it won’t perform like the one next door.

I have been in dozens of factories that had takt time, some semblance of continuous flow, pull systems, supermarkets, all of that stuff. They had run hundreds, maybe thousands, of kaizen events, and had suggestion programs. All of these things were visible just by walking around.

Yet most of them were stuck. They had reached a point when all of their energy was being expended to re-implement the things that had slid back. Three steps forward, three steps back.

They had read Ohno’s book, they knew the history of the Toyota Production System. They understood all of the engineering aspects of the system, and could install very good working examples of all of it.

But something wasn’t there, and that something is the foundation that keeps the house from sinking into the ground. It is the real basics.

Kaizen Express hints at it on pages 99 – 102, it is true employee involvement. And here is a real basic: Employee involvement is created by leader involvement. Not just top leaders, all leaders, at all levels.

To be honest, a lot of technical specialists don’t like that very much for a couple of reasons. First, engaging the leaders, at all levels, is really hard. It is a lot easier to get things done by going straight to the gemba and doing it ourselves – we show people how to do it, we “engage” them in the initial implementation, and everything is wonderful for the Friday report-out.

But I contend that the foundation of the Toyota Production System is the leadership system. It is the system of leadership that holds up all of the walls that we call takt, flow and pull. Those things, in turn, enable the leadership system to function better. The “characteristics of a lean value stream” evolved in response to the leadership system, in order to strengthen it. It is a symbiosis, an ecosystem.

“But it didn’t start out as a leadership system.” No, it did not. The history of how the Toyota Production System evolved is well documented, and the leadership system was less designed than it evolved. But let’s go back to our house analogy.

Primitive houses only have the “basics” I described above. They don’t have sophisticated foundations, some are just built on skids (if that). But because they lack the basics, most of those primitive houses don’t last.

And there is the paradox. When we say “back to the basics” we cannot only refer to the chronological history of how the system developed. We have to take the most successful, most robust example in front of us today, and we have to look at what fundamental thing holds this thing up and lets it grow more robust every day.

So let’s take a look at what Toyota teaches when they teach someone the basics.

The article Learning to Lead at Toyota was written back in 2004, but I still feels it offers a lot of un-captured insight into the contrast between what Toyota thinks are “the basics” and what most others do. I want to encourage everyone to get a copy, and not just read it, but to parse it, study it, and use it as an “ideal condition” or a benchmark. Compare your “lean manufacturing” and your leadership systems to what is described in here. Ask yourself the question:

Do we really understand the basics?

Note: There are now links to my study guides for Learning to Lead at Toyota on the Resources page.

TPS Failure Modes – Part 1

Following on from the buzz created by the last couple of posts, I would like to go back in time a bit.

In 2005 Steven Spear wrote a working paper called “Why General Motors Lost and Toyota Won.” A reader can clearly the see emerging themes that were developed into his book Chasing the Rabbit .

Spear talks about the leverage of “operationally outstanding” in changing the game, the capabilities he sees in “operationally outstanding” organizations, then “Failure Modes at Becoming Toyota Like.”

I would like to dwell a bit on these failure modes, and reflect a little on what they look like.

Failure Mode 1: Copy Lean Tools Without Making Work Self Diagnostic

So what does “self diagnostic” mean?

For something to be “self diagnostic” you need two pieces of information:

  • What is supposed to happen.
  • What actually happens.

Then you need some mechanism that compares the two and flags any difference between them. This sounds complicated, but in reality, it isn’t.

Let’s look at a common example: At the most basic level, this is the purpose of 5S.

5S as a Self Diagnostic Tool

In 5S, you first examine the process and seek to understand it. Then, applying your best understanding, you decide what is necessary to perform the process, and remove everything else. Applying your best understanding again, you seek to locate the items where they would be used if the process goes the way you expect it to.

You improve the self-diagnostic effect by marking where things go, so it immediately clear if something is missing, out of place, or excess.

Then you watch. As the process is carried out, your “best understanding” is going to be tested.

Can it be done with the things you believed are necessary? If something else is required, then you have an opportunity to improve your understanding. Get that item determine where it is used, and carry out the operation. But go a little deeper. Ask why you didn’t realize this was needed when you examined the process. Challenge your process of getting that initial understanding and you improve your own observation skills.

Is everything you believed is necessary actually used? If not, then you have another opportunity to improve your understanding. Is that item only used sometimes? When? Why? Is it for rework or exceptions? (see failure mode #2!) Why did you believe it was necessary when you did your initial observation?

Does something end up out of place? Is it routinely used in a place other than where you put it? This is valuable information if you now seek to understand how the process is different from what you expected.

Now think about the failure mode: What does fake-5S look like? What is 5S without this thinking applied?

How do you “do” 5S?

Look long and hard if you are trying to audit your way into compliance rather than using it as a diagnostic for your understanding of your process.

Though the jargon “self diagnostic” sounds academic, we have all talked about visual controls “distinguishing the normal from the abnormal” or other similar terms. It is nothing new. What makes this a failure mode is that people normally don’t think it is that important when Spear cites a mountain of evidence (and I agree) that this is critical to success. You can only solve the problems you can see.

Another Example: Takt Time

What is takt time? Before you whip out your calculators and show me the math, step back and ask the core question of “What it is” rather than “how to calculate it.” What is it?

Takt time is part of a specification for a process – it defines what should be happening. By setting takt time you are saying “IF our process can routinely cycle at this interval, then we can meet our customer’s demand. Takt time defines both part of a “defect free” outcome of your work cycle as well as a specification for process design.

Then you apply your very best knowledge of the process steps and sequence and set out a work cycle which you believe can be accomplished within the takt. It becomes self-diagnostic when you check, every time if the actual work cycle was the same as the intended work cycle. An easy way to check is to compare the actual time with the designed time.

In Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System, Spear cites an example of seat installation.

At Toyota’s plants, […] it is instantly clear when they deviate from the specifications. Consider how workers at Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky, plant install the right-front seat into a Camry. The work is designed as a sequence of seven tasks, all of which are expected to be completed in 55 seconds as the car moves at a fixed speed through a worker’s zone. If the production worker finds himself doing task 6 (installing the rear seat-bolts) before task 4 (installing the front seat-bolts), then the job is actually being done differently than it was designed to be done, indicating that something must be wrong. Similarly, if after 40 seconds the worker is still on task 4, which should have been completed after 31 seconds, then something, too, is amiss. To make problem detection even simpler, the length of the floor for each work area is marked in tenths. So if the worker is passing the sixth of the ten floor marks (that is, if he is 33 seconds into the cycle) and is still on task 4, then he and his team leader know that he has fallen behind.


On this assembly line, time is used, not so much to pace the work, but as a diagnostic tool to call out instances when the work departs from what is intended – or in simpler terms, when there is a problem.

All of this has been about checking that the process is being carried out as expected. But, bluntly, the customer really doesn’t give a hoot about the process. The customer is interested in the output. How do you know that the output of your process is actually helping your customer?

To know that you first have to be really clear on a couple of things:

  • Who your customer actually is.
  • What value do you provide to that customer?

Put another way, can you establish a clear, unambiguous specification of what a defect free outcome is for each supplier-customer interface in your process? Can you follow that trap line of supplier-customer interfaces down to the process of delivering value to your paying customers?

To make this self-diagnostic, though, you have to not only specify (what should be happening), you have to check (what is actually happening), and you have to do it every time.

So poka-yoke (mistake proofing) is a way to verify process steps. Other mistake proofing will detect problems with the outputs. All are (or should be) designed to diagnose any problems and immediately halt the process or, at the very least, alert someone.

The theme that is emerging here is the concept of PLAN-DO and CHECK, with the CHECK being thoroughly integrated into the process itself, rather than a separate function. (Not that it can’t be, but it is better if CHECK is continuous.)

The Supply Chain

I was walking through the shop one afternoon and spotted an open bundle of steel tube – about half of them remaining. They used kanban to trigger re-order. The rule of kanban is that the kanban card is pulled and placed in the post when the first part is consumed. To make this clear, they literally attached the kanban to the bands with a cable tie. Thus, breaking the band would literally release the kanban. Simple, effective.

But, though this bundle had been opened, there was the kanban card still attached to the (now broken) banding. It was lurking at the base of the pallet, but visible.

I went and got the supervisor, and told him that “You are going to have a shortage of 4×5 tube on Wednesday, and it is your fault. Would you like to know why?” I guess I should point out that I had a pretty good relationship with this guy, so he knew I was playing him a little. Then I just said “Look, and tell me what you see.”

It took a few seconds, but he saw the kanban, said “Argh” and started to pick it up to put into the post. I stopped him and asked if it was his responsibility to do that. No, it was the welder’s responsibility. “Then you should take a minute with him, and do what I just did with you.”

Then I asked him how often the kanban cards were collected. (I knew, I wanted to check that he knew.) “Daily, about 1 pm.”

“How often do you walk by here every day?” He said at least twice, in the morning and right after lunch. “So all you need to do is take a quick glance as you walk by, twice a day, and you will always get that kanban into the post before 1pm.”

He did, and their periodic shortages dropped pretty much to zero.


First, the system was set up JIT. We knew the expected rate of use of that part. We knew the supplier’s lead time and delivery frequency. We knew the bundle size. MATH told us the minimum number of kanban cards that would need to circulate in this loop to ensure the weld cell never ran out… unless one of the inputs was wrong or unless the process operated differently than we expected.

We also knew that, given the rate of consumption, how many bundles should be in the shop at any given time, and we had space market out for just that amount. Thus, we could tell immediately if something was received early, or if our rate of consumption fluctuated downward. (Because a pallet would arrive, but there would be no place to put it.)

We could have just had a Team Member come by once a day and check if a bundle had been opened, and send an order to replenish it. We could have been even more sophisticated and just set up a barcode scan that would trigger a computer order.

But if we had set up the process that way, how could the Supervisor distinguish between “Ordered” or “Not Ordered?” It was that stray out-of-place kanban card that told him.

Bin with kanban cardThus, physical kanban cards, physically attached to the materials, represent a self-diagnostic check. If the card is there, then that container should be full. Quick to check. If the container is not full, there should be no card. Quick to check. If a container arrives with no card, it was not properly ordered and is likely excess (or at least calls for investigation). Quick to check. The physical card, the seeming crude manual operation, provides cross-checks…self-diagnosis… simply and cheaply in ways that few automated systems replicate.

So far these have all been manufacturing examples. But Spear is clear that all work is self-diagnostic, not just manufacturing.

What non-manufacturing work fits into this model?

(Hint: All of it.)

What about a project plan? Though in reality, most project plans don’t. Read Critical Chain by Goldratt to understand the difference – and produce and manage project plans that are much more likely to finish on time.

What about a sales plan? Do you predict your monthly sales? Do you check to see if week 1 actual sales deviated from what was expected? Do you plan on activities that you believe will hit your sales targets? Which customers are you calling on? What do you predict they will do? (Which tests how well you really know them.) Do you actually call on those customers? Do they need what you thought they would? Or do you learn something else about them? (Or do you make a best guess “forecast” and wait for the phone to ring?)

Once you have a sales plan, do you put together a manufacturing and operations plan which you believe will match production to sales? How much variation do you expect to accumulate between production and sales over the course of that plan? Do you put alarm thresholds on your finished goods or your backlog levels that would tell you when that predicted variation has been exceeded?

How do you (and how often do you) compare actual sales (volume, models, and revenue) against the plan? Do you know right away if you are off plan? How long will you tolerate being off plan before you decide that something unexpected is happening? Is there a hard trigger point already set out for that? Or do you let the pain accumulate for a while?

A lot of companies were caught totally by surprise a few months ago when their sales seemed to fall off a cliff. Question: Did you have rising inventory levels before that? Was there a threshold that forced attention to something unexpected? Or did you increasingly tolerate and normalize deviance from your intended business plan?

At the next levels up – you have a business plan of some kind. You have financial targets. Do you have specific actions you plan to take at specific times? Do you check if those actions were actually taken? Do those actions have some kind of predicted outcome associated with them? Do you check if the actual outcome matches what you predicted? If you just “try something to see what happens” you might learn, but you might not. If you predict, then try to see IF it happens, you are more likely to gain more understanding from that experience.

When you design a product, do you have performance specifications? Do you test your design(s) against those performance specifications? Do you do that at every stage, or just at the end?

When you say “We need training” have you first specified what the work process is? Have you studied the situation and determined that people do not have the skills or knowledge to do the job? Have you specified what those skills are?

Have you developed the training to specifically develop those skills? Do you have a way to verify that people got the skills required? Do you check if, now, they can perform the work that they could not perform before? If you didn’t do the last, why did you “train” them at all? How do you know it was not just entertainment?

“Management Is Prediction”


This quote, attributed to W. Edwards Deming, really sums up what this is about. By specifying an outcome – “defect free” (which implies you know that is), within a certain time; and by specifying the process steps; you are predicting the outcome.

“If we do these things, in this sequence, it should require this amount of time, and produce this result.”

Then do it, and check:

Does what you really had to do reflect the tasks you thought would be required?

Does the order you really did them in reflect what was in the plan?

Does the time required reflect the time you planned on?

Did it produce the intended result?

Building those checks into the process itself makes it self-diagnostic.

Try This

Go study a process, any process. Just watch. Constantly ask yourself:

How does this person know what to do?

How does this person know if s/he is doing it right?

What alerts this person if s/he makes a mistake?

How does this person know s/he succeeded?

If there are clear, unambiguous answers right in front of you – without research, without requiring vigilance or luck on the part of the Team Member, then you probably have something approaching self-diagnostic work. Likely, you don’t. If that is the case, don’t say you are “doing lean.” You are only going through the motions.

Toyota projects first operating loss since 1941

At one level, this news drives home the state of the global economy. But let’s parse the story a bit and see if there is contrast about how Toyota handles this vs. how their competitors do.

First, of course, is the “…since 1941” part, compared to the record losses that have been reported by the rest of the sector for many quarters now. This is the first time the leadership has had to report a loss.

Gloom dominated the annual news conference by Toyota’s president, who in recent years had outlined ambitious expansion plans. This year, Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe even refused to give a worldwide vehicle sales goal for 2009.

“The tough times are hitting us far faster, wider and deeper than expected,” he told reporters at Toyota’s Nagoya office. “This is an unprecedented crisis requiring urgent action.” [emphasis added]

So what will they do about it?

Watanabe vowed Toyota would grow so lean it would realize profitability even if its worldwide sales slid to as low as 7 million vehicles  — what he called the basic “bottom line” for Toyota.

“We must change to become more slim, muscular and flexible,” he said.

While I am certainly not inside anyone’s board room, here is what I am reading between the lines.

In Lansing (GM), the attitude is that external forces are causing an otherwise well managed company to suffer hard times. “We can’t do anything about this, it’s not our fault.”

In Nagoya (Toyota) the attitude is  “If we had managed well enough, this would not have happened. We need to examine ourselves and do something about this so it doesn’t happen again.”

Of course the whole mess is fraught with U.S. politics which will complicate things immensely. But it will still be interesting to watch.

Oh – and, while they are certainly in trouble, I believe our friends in Dearborn (Ford) got off the denial train a while ago. Time will tell if it was soon enough for them.

Shingijutsu Kaizen Seminar Day 5 – Toyota Museum, Toyota Tour

Friday was a visit to the Toyota Museum in the morning and the “1 hour tour” of the Tsutsumi assembly plant in the afternoon.

Toyota Museum

If you ever get to Nagoya, the Toyota Museum is superb and definitely worth a visit. Even if you have no interest at all in lean manufacturing (so why are you reading this??) you get a really good look at over 100 years of technology development in the weaving industry, as well as their automotive history.

Sakichi Toyoda was one of Japan’s greatest inventors. Starting at the end of the 19th century he started incorporating mechanical assist and then automation into weaving looms. Remarkably his inventions were the first significant advance in weaving technology since John Kay invented the flying shuttle in 1733. Most of Sakichi’s principles remain today. There have been engineering advancements, but the basics are all still there. It was patent licensing of his first fully-automated loom with auto shut-off (jidoka) — the Model G in 1924 — that capitalized his start into the automobile business.

But I have to give credit to Gregg, one of my team-mates here, who summed it all up in one profound sentence:

“… all of this started with a son trying to make life easier for his mother.”

Wow. and Yeah. That insight really got to the core of what kaizen is about – a passion for making the work easier, because people’s burden matters.

Tsutsumi Plant Tour

Just to be clear, this is exactly the same tour that any group gets. There is nothing particularly special. The bus is boarded at the gate by the Public Relations girl (they are always young women), and she starts the spiel. We are on the catwalk over the line following a specific route.

So what did I see?

Wow. And that is not just because it was a Toyota plant, been on this tour before. The “Wow” is that they have made a significant change in their material conveyance. This may be old news to you, but I was last in this plant in 2000, so it was new to me. Previously they had line side racks with stocks of parts for the various models and options. The assembler looked at the manifest for the part code, and picked the appropriate parts for that car from the bins and installed them.

Later on I know they placed RFID on the car roofs which tell the various poka-yokes in the work station what the car needs, but the pick method was not fundamentally different. Kanban replenished the parts are they were used. (more about the RFID in a little bit.)

Now they are kitting car-specific collections of parts and sequencing them to the assembly stations. This is significant because I am a big fan of picking kits and delivering them to assembly at takt. There are a lot of possible problems which are mitigated or eliminated when this is done. But I had always conceded that at some point, takt time was so quick that it might not be practical.

I stand corrected. Here is an operation picking and delivering kits to many hundreds of assembly positions, one-by-one, at a takt of just under 60 seconds. Wow. The picking process is, well, superb, I am not sure what else I can say about it here. I am going to assemble my thoughts over the next couple of days.

RFID – the Car as Customer

The other really interesting bit was the use of an RFID box on top of every car. The box has that particular car’s configuration and options coded in it. (I suppose it could be a serial number linked to an option list in a data base too, but knowing some basic tenants of Toyota’s philosophy regarding information flow, I would not be surprised if the data were actually carried on the car.)

As the car moves through the processes, each work station basically asks the car “What are you? What do you need?” and the “car” responds through the RFID. The work stations’ poka-yokes and other configuration dependent things then adjust to help the assembler give the car what it needs.

So why not just put the sequence list in the computer and have each one called up as it goes by?

What happens if (inevitably) some small variation causes the list to not be accurate. There are thousands of things that can cause small changes. The second that computer sequence list is inaccurate, the entire system breaks down. And inaccurate it will be. Anyone who has tried to run their factory on detailed MRP blowdown knows what I am talking about.

No, in this case, each car “pulls” the work it requires, when it requires it. The information in each work station is delivered just-in-time, and not one second earlier. Thus the information is always the latest. Note that this is really not a fundamental change philosophically. The car has always carried its configuration information with it on the paper manifest. What is different here is that the computer system is facilitating better kaizen, but the information flow philosophy has not changed. The information travels with the car, not ahead of it.

What about that picking and kitting process? Well – and maybe one of you Toyota guys out there can answer this for me – and I will update this accordingly – but I would speculate that it too is driven by the RFID tags rather than a production sequence list. It is a very simple matter to know how many takt-times of lead time are required to pick the kit and get it to the appropriate station. (Well, it is simple for Toyota who is so takt-pulse driven, it may not be as simple for the rest of us – a kaizen opportunity here – basic stability.)

If it takes 10 takt times to pick and get a kit to the line, then 10 positions upstream of the delivery point the RFID is queried. “What are you?” That tells the system what is needed in +10 positions, and the pick list is sent to the picking area. The parts are pulled, kanban cards posted for replenishment, and the kit-cart sent on its way.. first in, first out, one-by-one to the assembly line.

No calculated lead-time offset. No sequenced pick list created in the morning. No sequenced pick list that will be wrong 5 minutes after it is printed. Robust, problem-tolerant, and simple.