The TPS vs. Toyota’s Production System

Up to this point I have resisted weighing in on the Toyota quality story largely because:

  1. I don’t have anymore insight than anyone else.
  2. The signal-to-noise ratio in the story seems really low, and I didn’t feel I would contribute much.

But there is another story in the back channels of the “lean” community.

Many of us (myself included) have been holding up Toyota as an example of “doing it right,” with good reason.

Toyota, of course, has never publicly claimed to be an icon of perfection, but we have held it up as one.

Now, when their imperfections are exposed, I am seeing a backlash of sorts, questioning whether the Toyota Production System is flawed somehow. This raises some really interesting questions cutting across the principles themselves; the psychology of various groups of practitioners; and of course Toyota’s practice of “The Toyota Production System.”

Are the principles themselves flawed?

We have a whole industry built on extolling the perfection of Toyota. Now we are seeing a bit of a boomerang effect. Say it ain’t so, but believe it or not, there is a population of people out there who are pretty sick of hearing “Toyota this..” and “Toyota that…” and having themselves held up to Toyota and being told they are coming up short.

Shame on us, the lean manufacturing community, for setting that situation up, but now we have to defend the principles on merit and establish credibility for ourselves rather than using Toyota as a crutch. Hopefully the adversity will sort out some of the practitioners who are still advocating rote copy of the tools and artifacts.

So, no, the principles are not flawed, not unless you didn’t believe in scientific thinking to begin with. It is a fallacy to confuse failure to adhere to the principles with failure of the principles themselves. The truth has always been that the Toyota Production System defines an ideal, and Toyota’s practice, like everyone else’s, comes up short sometimes.

So what will happen?

I can imagine that consultants the world over are figuring out how to re-brand their offerings to show how they “close the gaps” in the Toyota Production System to go “beyond lean.”

Meanwhile, though, those who are grounded are going to have to get more grounded. Stay focused on the process, the objectives, what is happening right in front of you. Ask the same questions. Tighten up on your teaching skills because the concepts are going to have to make sense in the here and now. No longer will they be blindly accepted because “That is how Toyota does it.”


5 Replies to “The TPS vs. Toyota’s Production System”

  1. Good insight to the current Toyota, Lean / TPS situation.

    Just the other day an employee here where I work said something to the effect that, “Because of Toyota’s current situation we had better not be trying to do what they do”. The interesting thing is that I always thought that this particular employee was not listening to me as I was teaching lean principles. It was encouraging to me to think that I had actually been successful, on some level, teaching lean principles. And the Toyota situation has opened up the opportunity for more lean related dialogue.

    Also, I’m thinking the only possible flaw in TPS related to Toyota current quality problems is that they never installed an andon device in the top managers office. And consider this:
    1. If there was an andon device to stop all production, they never had to pull the cord in 73 years.
    2. It was probably never tested. After all it had to stop some 300,000 employees in several countries.
    3. Sometime during their 73 year history, they may have inadvertently moved the device to the legal department. And the complexities of evaluating a problem in the legal department would have made the device useless.

  2. This was exactly Jim Womack’s message at his Lean Transformation Summit keynote last week (I need to blog about this).

    He said we need to quit saying “do this because Toyota says so” and prove the merit of ideas through PDCA. The only real authority is our own PDCA — what works, what doesn’t? Womack said many of us have been “riding in Toyota’s wake.” Not sure if he was looking in the mirror, also, with that statement.

    Pity that some slimy consultants will now have a packaged plan (or software) for what’s better than Toyota.

    What’s better than Toyota is what we invent and create in our own organization. We should learn from Toyota, but not blindly copy. That’s always been true and it’s more true now.

  3. Fisrtly most of what makes up the TPS system are ideas that come from North American industry in the first place. Study the ideas of men like Edison, DuPont, Peirpont Morgan (yes JP, but he hated the name John), Deming, Drucker and more. These people either built major enterprises, or studied how they did it. Second look at all we learned during WWII, about production, and throughout the day after the war ended. Taiichi Ohno and the Toyoda family had the guts and willingness to learn and apply what we should have known and used.

    But the reality is that Taiichi Ohno was pushed out of Toyota, because he pushed to hard to implement it across the whole enterprise, rubbing many others the wrong way. Toyota is run by people they are all flawed and make msitakes. To date the ideals of TPS have never been fully implemented anywhere, not even at Toyota. In fact we can probably find smaller companies who have taken implemetation much farther than Toyota ever will.

    The TPS ideals that Ohno put together though embody some of the best ideas from around the world. BUT LIKE PERFECTION THEY WILL NEVER BE FULLY ACHIEVED. But working toward them every day will make us better.

    And perhaps along the way some of us will start to realize that in; implementing anything, common sense needs to be applied, and at times some of the tools do not apply in a situation. In fact in some cases other non-lean ideas and tools may in fact do a better job, but going back to post war styled mass production is not possible or feasible.

    In fact when I think back about the companies and plants I knew really well a tobacco processing operation did better job at embodying the ideals. They did it before Toyota ever even made a splash, or Womack and Jones wrote a book. They did by applying ideas they heard about and common sense.

    One last point I am not a great fan of Toyota products, or the company. For an asian company I think Honda is much better run, as are Samsung, and Hyundai. You could probably guess what my favourite vehicles are still all Fords and Chevys. But the same problem could strike them.

    Unfortunately unlike the food industry that pulls together when there are major safety threats, automakers will try to play up each other failures, it just makes them all look bad.

  4. Mark – Great insights, Thanks.

    So much of the Toyota situation has been observation and opinion from afar. Some pretty good technical analysis here and there, but for the majority of us we are merely outside observers to the whole situation. The Popular Mechanics article you referenced, “Anatomy of Toyota Accelerator Pedal”, went into greater analysis of the problem. This article correctly stated that 1) there is much more root cause analysis needed, 2) that separating out fact from fiction has been difficult and my personal opinion is 3) thus far Toyota’s response has been inadequate to calm the feeding frenzy and at times has added to it.

    It is the discussions in the Manufacturing community about how Toyota’s problems reflect upon Lean and TPS, that at times seems more disappointment by devotees or competitors piling on. Many have and will continue to idolize Toyota as the ideal we should all aspire to. Toyota has been and is a great example of continuous improvement in Manufacturing and the Enterprise and there is the rub, instead of holding up Toyota as the ideal to emulate we should be holding up the goal of continuous improvement everyday. As humans we often idolize individuals who represent the ideal, and in Toyota’s case the industry, TPS, that has been developed around a company. We are better served as Manufacturers:

    by focusing our teams on what we need to do in our own organizations and functions to improve.
    by recognizing again that Lean, TPS, is a path not the end goal.

    Mark, when you first taught myself and my team, you always made sure we were observant. You’d ask what did we see? What did we observe on the gemba, in photos, from the perspective of the workers adding that value to the products. You’d ask what did we hear? What were people (employees, customers and potential customers) saying about our products or services.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with “…those who are grounded are going to have to get more grounded. Stay focused on the process, the objectives, what is happening right in front of you. Ask the same questions. Tighten up on your teaching skills because the concepts are going to have to make sense in the here and now. No longer will they be blindly accepted because ‘That is how Toyota does it.'”

  5. Personally, I think a good deal of the current backlash against Toyota is 1) sensationalism, 2) politics, and 3) ambulance chasing. Let’s look at each of these one at a time.

    First, could somebody be making a mountain out of a mole hill here? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not proposing that Toyota doesn’t have several issues here, but I will propose that they’re not nearly as wide spread as the press is leading us to believe. What I will also propose is that we have a very successful foreign owned company with a good deal of money in the bank. We also have an economy held together by a thread and several big companies (the former big 3) in a tight financial situation. Wouldn’t it be great to find something (anything) wrong with the competition to knock them down a few notches and maybe even claw back some of those “ill-gotten” billions in the process? Don’t think the American public is above this. As my shining example here, look at Consumer Reports recent publicity stunt with the Lexus SUV. Did you see the video? What vehicle wouldn’t spin out when tossed into a corner at that speed?

    Second, there’s politics. (Actually, there’s always politics.) Does anybody really think that if Government Motors (GM) was in the exact same situation they’d be subject to the same hue and cry? Has anybody actually watched the congressional hearings? In the past we’ve accused other nations of what I’ll just call silly justice systems, but our elected officials absolutely made me sick to my stomach here. The shining example was the government’s “expert witness” who “rewired” Toyota electrical systems to make them do what he wanted. I wonder if he’s rewired a Chevy or a Ford lately? Heck, I could probably rewire my toaster to make it do just about whatever I wanted. Should we then sue Proctor-Silex if it takes out a red light camera?

    Finally, there’s the lawyers. If there was ever a pot of honey to go after, Toyota certainly has one here. All one has to do is dig into the now famous runaway Prius incident in California to see where an individual was setting himself up to grab attention and riches with the help of the legal community. Fortunately, his case is falling apart faster than he can back pedal. Trust me though, there will be millions made by lawyers arguing both sides of this case – even if there isn’t really a case. And speaking of lawyers, does anybody think the former big 3 don’t have similar skeletons in their closets that their lawyers have successfully locked up?

    In summary, I think it’s fair to say that Toyota flat out didn’t handle this one very well from a public relations standpoint. Does that mean that their fabled production system is to be thrown out the door? Did we toss Henry Ford’s mass manufacturing system out the door when Ford Pintos started to act like a backyard grill? Did GM stop using the same system when their X-cars had all sorts of issues in the 1980’s? The point I’m trying to make here is that no system is perfect and Toyota certainly found that out here. I’m very confident that Toyota will address their issues head on and very quickly. Toyota products are still fundamentally great and so is the production system that built them. Unfortunately, the fallout from this one will hound them for years after they’ve been back on track. Wise manufacturers will continue to implement Lean manufacturing to remain (or get) competitive.

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