Teaching Lean Without Toyota?

When I teach lean tools, I naturally reference the Toyota Production System and talk about their journey (which they don’t call lean!) as an introduction to the topic. Naturally, in the healthcare setting, I don’t dwell on the assembly-line function too much, but I have always felt that it’s helpful to put the approach in a historical context.

Now that Toyota has been in the news for its recalls, halt of production, and other moves, I’ve received some suggestions to remove any references to Toyota, because obviously, they’re not following their own system, or they wouldn’t be in such trouble, would they!!! So if Toyota is faltering, then we don’t want to connect our lean teaching with them in any obvious way.

And if you take this one step further, then I guess we should give up on lean itself, since obviously it didn’t work for Toyota so it won’t work for us.

Now before you start bombarding me with emails, let me explain that I haven’t stopped discussing the history of the Toyota Production System in my classes, and I haven’t given up on lean as a worthwhile approach (among other process improvement methodologies). I do talk briefly about Toyota’s current condition, in respect to their need to “get back to basics,” and then proceed from there.

My question to you is, have you had this question come up in your own work, and how have you responded? I’m interested to see whether this is a wide-spread concern, or just an issue in my own little corner of the world!

Comments 16

  1. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    The question has come up. Of course they weren’t following their own system – NO ONE could follow it through every decision, every person, every day. They were failing before this on a daily basis. This failure just happened to have larger consequences, at least from a financial and public opinion standpoint (even though their actual quality really hasn’t changed in terms of real defects).

    Some of my reactions when I get questions such as this I summarized here:

  2. Mike86

    It’s come up a couple of times. The first time was actually a couple of years ago. Well before the recent spate of issues. Here’s how I do it:

    Jim Womack made the Lean-Toyota link in "The Machine That Changed the World". It’s difficult to talk about the start of "Lean" without attributing the general idea to Toyota.

    The concept of Lean was based on observations made in a variety of automotive plants in different countries. Toyota was identified in Womack’s book as using tools and concepts that he ultimately collectively identifies as "Lean".

    This connection allowed Womack to use Japanese terms (exception of tackt time -German) to identify concepts to be considered in the "Lean" family. While English terms could be generated, using Japanese words in the Western world re-inforces the idea of Lean being a different way of thinking.

    There you go, mention Toyota, explain the impact, move on. If somebody wants to throw a "yeah, but" in, work for the book was started in 1984 and finally published in 1990. Things have changed since 1990 and will continue to change.


  3. egillet

    We also get a lot questions on the Toyota situation. I shared the below excerpt from a recent Jim Womack article with my team, to help them answer "Toyota" questions. Perhaps you find it useful too:

    "Toyota will be fine. I believe that around the turn of this century the company made a very human error by deciding it wanted to become the biggest auto maker quickly, a goal of no interest to any customer. Then it worked backward to do what it took to rapidly become the biggest, surpassing the "do not exceed" speed that every organization has on its instrument panel.

    By stomping on the gas Toyota briefly lost touch with the core values and rigorous methods that had worked brilliantly for solving customer problems over the preceding 50 years while permitting Toyota to prosper. The result has been some bumps in the road to the future. And there are likely to be further jolts in the near term as every journalist, regulator, legislative committee, and trial lawyer in every country pores over Toyota’s product safety performance.

    There’s not much to be done about that. But what Toyota can and will do is hansei (critical self reflection) and organizational rework to get back to basics and move on. This requires root cause analysis and testing of countermeasures that will seem agonizingly slow to outside observers. But surely we have learned that quick fixes based on incomplete knowledge with no rigorous testing aren’t durable. So let’s all be patient."

  4. John Reid

    I believe the new chairman or managing director of Toyota is quoted as saying when he took over that they needed to get back to quality and their own principles. This was before any news of failures or recalls. The impression I have is that he was acknowledging that they had been trying too hard to be the biggest rather than the best. The signs were there at least internally and therefore we should be emphasising the mindset and the principles that created their progress in the first place. After so many years of success they needed to relearn that success doesn’t follow the Toyota name, it follows the Toyota principles. So rather than ignore this I think we should emphasis it, it’s very instructive. I don’t have a quote (in english) of his statement but I would be grateful if anyone could get better details on this.

  5. omqualityguru

    I started working on Training Model based on Lean and now changed the concept. I would rather superimpose discipline of external audits and integration of various Quality systems to achive Excellence.It appears that Toyota neglected VOC and also Safety Warnings and went into WE KNOW EVERYTHING mode. May be Quality is like GOD Realisation without any end .

    To me Spirituality based Quality is the Ultimte answer to these problems.Thanks.

  6. omqualityguru

    I started working on Training Model based on Lean and now changed the concept. I would rather superimpose discipline of external audits and integration of various Quality systems to achive Excellence.It appears that Toyota neglected VOC and also Safety Warnings and went into WE KNOW EVERYTHING mode. May be Quality is like GOD Realisation without any end .

    To me Spirituality based Quality is the Ultimte answer to these problems.Thanks.

  7. EvieM

    I think we should talk about it to some extent.
    I helped facilitate a workshop last week and we talked a little bit about the quality of the process outputs and whether or not they were defective or if the design was at fault and the problems should have been identified as potential risks. We also talked about the Toyota response to the situation, the decision to do such a massive recall and the work they will now be doing as a company to understand what happened and learn from it.
    We didn’t draw any conclusions with our group other than this; the approach Toyota take now, the root causes they identify and what they do next should have some takeaways for all of us.

  8. Steve

    Wouldn’t you have to look at the data to determine if their systems should have caught the problems? I’ve had accelerators stick on two Dodges but never one of my Toyotas. I had more trouble with the Dodges getting to 100,000 miles than the Toyotas do getting to 200,000. Most car companies would love to have Toyotas problems.

  9. Rich Boehling

    If I may add, is it possible that TPS is kinda "old school "by now? There is a very interesting article in this months issue of Wired, that suggests we are entering a new kind of industrial revolution where a sole proprietor can compete with companies like Sony on a global scale.

    Perhaps, the new concept of distributed production systems (DPS) enabled by global communications and information may render "classic" lean obsolete…DPS is ultimately lean on steriods.

  10. jimmy barrows

    My best answer and experience is discuss problems and solutions then give credit where due.

    When discussing statistics and ISO to non-believers what brings the eyes bright is discussing where in the world the method works, S. America, Europe, China, Austrlia etc… of course here in CT also. Unless they say they are from another planet let’s for now say it will work here too.

    1+1=2 everywhere I know of. If it doesn’t work now for Toyota maybe they lost thier way; if fact they admit to it. Not a problem with the method.


  11. Sue Kozlowski

    Thanks Jamie for sharing your insightful post, I enjoyed reading it. Mike86 gives us a very practical way of dealing with the issue in training. Erik, thanks for posting some pertinent paragraphs from Jim Womack’s latest newsletter. All very good insights on an issue that may be troubling for new learners.

    John points out that we need to be careful of confusing the name with the content – shouldn’t improvement be less about what we call it, and more about what we do? K K’s point about following some aspects of a system, while neglecting others, is certainly a pitfall to watch out for.

    EvieM, I agree that Toyota’s response can be another teaching opportunity – shutting down production can’t have been the easiest decision to make, knowing what kind of response that would get from the American public.

    Steve, I’m sure that Toyota is strenuously doing root cause analysis "even as we speak" – to ensure that not only this problem is non-recurring, but that their system can detect such potential issues in the future.

    Rich, you make an interesting point. It’s funny that I initially heard lean described as PDCA on steroids… now we have lean on steroids…

    Thank you all again for this great discussion.
    Sue K.

  12. Sue Kozlowski

    Jimmy, you bring up a good point – sometimes people confuse appropriateness of the method with the success of the deployment… I’ve seen similar claims that "Six Sigma didn’t work for XXX so it’s a bad method" in other discussion forums, and it always amazes me. What’s the core teaching of Six Sigma – there are many FACTORS leading to a certain OUTCOME! Thanks for your input,
    Sue K.

  13. Mark Bardin

    Did Lean Six Sigma cost Motorola the loss of the Apple processor contract due to inability to meet production demands and the lack of quality? Look at Leans’ failure at Toyota. How will this be explained, let me guess, they did not follow their own plan. Is Lean Six Sigma is a scam, albeit a profitable one?
    If you have one part on the shelf to install and it is defective, do you install it to meet your production goal, or wait to get another part shipped to you? If you have five parts on the shelf and three are bad with the same flaw is there a process problem to report to your supplier, if there is one part and it is defective is it a fluke? Is Lean Six Sigma a religion, not to be questioned without threats and retaliation?

  14. Jian Zhao

    Mark, yes and no to your question.

    I agree that no methodology is perfect ever since recorded history. To me, sometimes Lean/six sigma is a little bit weighty and smells academic, and it may have the tendency to mislead people toward over-estimated power of pure process and under-estimated the technology and other practical methods, especially when Lean/SS experts are not very familiar with the production line itself. ( in this regard Lean is in a better shape). This is a happening truth all over the globe.

    However, if you look at the whole system from far away, you’ll find that you still need something to organize your business operation and production. Unfortunately there is not one single way that can guarantee perfection, is there? Severe defects caused vast amount of loss to launch spacecrafts, in all major countries. Haven’t they invested enough money and time? Haven’t they imposed much more strict quality standards to follow?

    To me the most important factor of quality is the quality of the organization’s culture. And many Japanese companies did great job in this matter. Sure they need serious postmortem analysis, and hopefully let us know why safety, of the utmost importance, had not undergone fully assessment.

  15. Sue Kozlowski

    Mark asks us to, "Look at Lean’s failure at Toyata." I push back: Did Lean fail? Or did Leadership fail? Just asking!

    Jian brings up a related point, since leadership and culture are intimately related.

    How many organizations have gone chasing off after the next big thing or miracle cure, thinking that applying the tools would get them to the pinnacle? Isn’t this another example of "Let’s do what our competitor is doing, since it works for them, and we’ll just use it to get better than they are!"

    Toyota developed their Production System based on their specific process and customer needs. If we have different process and customer needs, should we each be building a "Production System" that works in our environment, rather than expecting that Toyota did all the heavy lifting so now we just have to select the parts out of it that are easy for us, expecting to reach some sublime peak of perfection that none of our comptetitors can match?

    Just asking!
    Sue K.

  16. Don Rybarczyk

    I would recommend the book “The Nun and the Bureaucrat" from productivity press. It discusses the journey 2 hospitals took after studying the Toyota system and the improvements they made. It’s an easy read, and even has a DVD that can be played to your Healthcare team to assist them in their understanding and how it can be applied to hospitals.

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