What the Toyota Crisis Means for Lean Part 1

March 1, 2010
By Darren Dolcemascolo

Lean Manufacturing is based on the Toyota Production System. There is no getting around that, unfortunately. The seven wastes, one piece flow, quality at the source, and all of the other key principles of lean come from Toyota. (Of course, Toyota borrowed some of these ideas from Henry Ford and others, but no one other than Toyota put them together into a system.) As we all know, Toyota has recalled millions of vehicles recently and is under investigation by the U.S. Government (the guys that own GM and Chrysler). While it does not look good for Toyota in the short term, what does all of this mean for companies pursuing operational excellence through the principles of lean?

In this brief article, I will attempt to answer that question. One question that must be answered first is: "Did the principles of lean or the Toyota Way actually cause the problems we are seeing?" Let's look at the principles of the Toyota Way as reported by author Jeffrey Liker:

    Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.
    2. Create a continuous process flow to bring problems to the surface.
    3. Use "pull" systems to avoid overproduction.
    4. Level out the workload.
    5. Build a culture of stopping to fix problems to get quality right the first time.
    6. Standardized tasks and processes are the foundation for continuous improvement and employee empowerment.
    7. Use visual control so no problems are hidden.
    8. Use only reliable, thoroughly tested technology that serves your people and processes.
    9. Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others.
    10. Develop exceptional people and teams who follow the company's philosophy.
    11. Respect your extended network of partners and suppliers by challenging them and helping them improve.
    12. Go and see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation.
    13. Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options: implement decisions rapidly.
    14. Become a learning organization through relentless reflection and continuous improvement.

Many of my fellow lean teachers and implementers have attempted to defend Toyota. Toyota has clearly violated some of their own principles in this, apparently trying to cover up problems rather than bring them to the surface in an attempt to gain in the short-term. I believe Toyota will learn from this and will ultimately regain its customers confidence. I believe the answer for Toyota is to simply go back to following its own principles. While we do not know the root causes of the various problems at Toyota, I believe we can confidently state that following the principles of lean and the Toyota Way is not a cause.

Thus, in my opinion, those of us who teach and facilitate the implementation of lean should continue to do so confidently. Let's not defend what Toyota did; let's talk about the what the principles are and how not following the principles can result in problems.

Ultimately, I believe the Toyota crisis will not cause people to think negatively of lean principles. There are many organizations and people who have seen how the implementation of lean principles, lean management, and lean tools can result in great success.

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