I struggle to understand why so many companies fail to successfully implement something similar to the Toyota Production System (TPS) or lean manufacturing. There is a large array of lean consultants, lean literature, lean training, and even lean certifications and yet only a few companies can demonstrate good progress, sustainable over time.
What is so special about the Toyota Production System that is hard to understand and apply?
And I have to look at the way we look at lean in North America compared to Japan.
I had the chance to work for a Japanese company and to know some Japanese engineers and technicians on temporary assignments in America.
One thing to be said about all of them was that they had a way of talking that brought to mind images rather than abstract concepts. It was easy for them to explain something by looking at nature, at the environment and drawing parallels.
I observed their reflective nature, their attention to detail, their ingrained respect for authority, their desire to do anything in their power to save face, their ability to focus on a subject for a long period of time and their resilience and hard work. Also, I observed how they tended to work always in teams, rarely alone on a task.
So, my natural reaction is that the answer to the above question must reside not in the lean tools (that we all learned and got training) but in something else. Does it have something to do with the way we approach this lean transformation? Should we look at the Toyota Way (the management principles)?
Are we focusing on the wrong angle? I went back to Taiichi Ohno’s “Toyota Production System” book to reflect on all the beautiful comparisons of a company with the human body. If we learn to see lean through Mr. Ohno’s eyes, a strong image will surface.
Observation on the Toyota Production System
Here are my observations: Toyota Production System’s goal has always been making a profit. Keep that in mind (not continuous flow, not kanban but money). The equation is Profit = Price – Cost.
It follows that, since a company cannot dictate the price, the focus must be on minimizing the cost of doing business. Furthermore, this can be achieved by eliminating everything that does not add some value to the product and making the highest quality products in the shortest lead time.
In addition, a company needs to make the right product and to keep the customer happy. How does a company achieve all of these? Through its employees, by training them (See TPS Training), by showing them appreciation and respect and by creating a problem solving culture.
This goal is achieved through two main production principles of Just-In-Time (produce and deliver the right part at the right time in the right amount) and Jidoka (quality at the source). Also, the standardization, the continuous improvement, and the elimination of wastes and their causes are ways Toyota uses to improve their metrics. That’s all friends. This is the core of the matter.
For this reason, you may visit Toyota plants and never see any values stream map posted on a wall, nor U-shaped cells. On the other hand, you may see many robots and automation replacing human operators.
No change agents or black belts are roaming around. And yet, the plant may have an excellent track record for continuously improving their profits. Why? Because their focus is on how to cut the overall costs for the plant by applying the above principles and only later they look at what tools are the most appropriate depending on where the problems reside.