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Some Thoughts on the Toyota Production System

Murmuration

The Toyota production system (TPS) was not designed.

The technique we call the Toyota production system was born through our various efforts to catch up with the automotive industries of western advanced nations…
— Taiichi Ohno, Foreword to Toyota Production System[1]

It grew out of “various efforts.” Often these efforts were “trial and error.” Experiments were run, lots of them. Some yielded desirable results, others did not. But lessons could be learned from every experiment—What worked? What didn’t? Why?

What made an outcome of an experiment desirable? What was the purpose of these efforts?

Above all, one of our most important purposes was increased productivity and reduced costs.

So how was productivity increased and costs reduced? Toyota guessed (or hypothesized) this could be done by “eliminating all kinds of unnecessary functions in the factories,” what we’ve come to term as waste. We all recognize there are many ways to produce the same result. However, some are less wasteful than others. They are efficient.

By attending to what is actually happening, by observing the real process, a worker could identify waste in various forms. Observation comes before understanding.

Our approach has been to investigate one by one the causes of various “unnecessaries” in manufacturing operations…

One by one!

If we take a minute to think about how many different operations—small and large, localized and cross-functional—take place in factories, we start to understand the scale of Toyota’s effort. That takes patience, discipline and perseverance i.e. grit. The image of a bee hive or a migrating wildebeest herd or a flock of starlings comes to my mind. There is no centralized design or control, nevertheless all members work with the same purpose.

…and to devise methods for their solution…

To eliminate the causes of different types of waste, i.e. the unnecessary functions in the factories, Toyota devised solutions such as kanban, just-in-time, production smoothing, and autonomation. These methods are outcomes of a way of thinking and being. Experimentation through trial and error. They are the means Toyota developed to achieve its purpose of increasing productivity and reducing costs. They could be spread within Toyota, but can they be used elsewhere? Many examples exist of attempts to incorporate them in companies here in the West. I’ve had a front row seat to many of them. Few, if any, show the type of sustained benefits seen by Toyota. Why is that? Context!

Although we have a slight doubt whether our Just-in-time system could be applied to the foreign countries where business climates, industrial relations, and many other social systems are different from ours, we firmly believe there is no significant difference among the final purposes of the firms and the people working in them.

All companies operate within an environment: business climates (e.g. the regulatory environment), industrial relations (i.e. how companies relate to their peers and their suppliers, their communities, and the natural environment), and social systems (such as local traditions and customs). These will necessarily affect the type and form of tools that emerge from experiments that (should) happen in support of a particular company’s purpose. By the way, contrary to Ohno’s point, and as irrational as it seems, not all companies have the same final purpose as Toyota—to increase productivity and reduce costs. Similarly, people in the West have different objectives, different worldviews, than those in the East.

The Toyota production system, and perhaps even lean, is a way of being in pursuit of certain purpose(s). They are not a set of tools to copy and deploy independent of and indifferent to the context where they are deployed. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that efforts to unthinkingly copy and apply them fail more often than succeed.

Links
[1] Monden, Yasuhiro. Toyota Production System. Norcross, GA: Industrial Engineering and Management Press. 1983. Print. ISBN 0-89806-034-6

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