Toyota Production System

The Toyota Way -Beyond Manufacturing Excellence, A way of Life for Organizations and Individuals

As a budding Supply Chain Professional, I am into practice of identifying and covering all the best Supply Chain Texts written over a period of time, which not only reflects some intriguing concept but also stood the test of time. As obvious, The Toyota Way by Jeffrey K. Liker leads the pack here.

Much has been written about this celebrated book and as for many this masterpiece is a peek in the window of much powerful system and concept of lean. But going through this book it made me realize that the conceptualization and execution of Toyota Production System devised by “super sensei” Taiichi Ohno is just not a way of production but an activity driven by deep cultural philosophy of respect, precision, reflection and strive for excellence.

Also as mentioned by the author, many of manufacturing giants did tried to emulate the Toyota Production System with little success as they missed out the real essence of driving elements of a true lean system which extend beyond establishing processes and technology and majorly revolve around people, where the prior two act as an enabler rather than bringing a winning differentiation.

Toyota’s tryst with success lies in the strong foundation laid down by its founder, Sakichi Toyoda, a great engineer and also revered as Japan’s “King of Inventors”, who has its humble beginning by developing power driven-wooden looms, which ultimately work through relentless hard work, perseverance and discipline led to the making of sophisticated automatic power loom all by himself.

Toyoda beliefs in “trying things on own or get your own hand dirty to grasp and understand the real problem” and his emphasis to look for “continuous improvement” with the strong intention to “contribute to the society” defines its working style and very much embedded in Toyota’s Culture, and are being major pillar of the organization consistent great performance.

The legacy of Sakichi Toyoda in some way was dazzled by his son, Kiichiro Toyoda, who following his footsteps made his own mark on automobile industry with Toyota Motor Corporation. He is something of his own to contribute as the more popular “Just-in-time” manufacturing nurtured under his guidance to look beyond prevalent production practices more suited to Japanese Automobile Market. He demonstrated being a visionary, innovative, practical and adaptive captain for his organization that truly holds the value and ideals of Toyoda Family.

Subsequently many executives from Toyoda family have their strong impact and great contribution in building the organizations but all follows the same beliefs in rendering their service for organization. I will quote the exact lines of internal Toyota Way document as mentioned in the book by author Jeffrey.K Liker.The document states:

“We accept challenges with a creative spirit and the courage to realize our own dreams without losing drive or energy. We approach our work vigorously with optimism and a sincere belief in the value of our contribution.”

“We strive to decide our own fate. We act with self-reliance, trusting in our own abilities. We accept responsibility for our conduct and for maintaining and improving the skills that enable us to produce added value.” 

Pretty strong statements, easier said than done, but at Toyota each employee take this to their hearts and time to time they have proved, that keeping the right spirit one can achieve anything that seems impossible. To feel their relentless pursuit to achieve the impossible, please do go through the story mentioned by author on development of highly successful cars “Prius” and “Lexus” and you will realize how they “walk their talk”.

In this book author has very beautifully captured all the elements that worked together as a system, which many company missed out focusing more on one aspect at the expense of other and thus be deprived of real benefits of a lean system.

Author has mentioned those elements through its 4P model as shown below:


As the picture clearly demonstrates the very sub-elements of those major elements which the company pursues to be a truly lean organization, you can obtain more details of those sub-elements very descriptively explained by author in his book with some fascinating examples provided.

Before we proceed I like to point out that in this blog post I am not going to explain the methodology or tools for being a lean enterprise and somebody seeking the same can better turn up to this book so as to build the real base or foundation of lean through intricate understanding of each element and the reason and importance of their coherence in creating a lean enterprise.

But here in my blog post I am very much inspired by the principles followed in designing the lean concept and can totally relate that these values and beliefs if applied by any organization or an individual can go a long way in leading a fulfilled life full of inspiration, discipline, creativity, innovation where success is shared by just not an individual or organization but touches many lives and thus, creating a motivating ecosystem where everybody strives for acting responsibly and achieve the greater good that benefits all. Lets take a look at these principles:

Long Term Thinking (Philosophy):

What it means to an Organization: First and foremost aspect of any successful individual or organization (may be with exception but largely) that they got the vision, long term foresight and think beyond the immediate returns. If you analyze there are many successful companies that continuously invest in their products, people, processes with not just the intention of winning the game tomorrow but to sustain their lead for times to come and had a practice of continuously evaluating themselves sometimes by taking a step backwards and examining that “are they doing enough to revolutionize the industry” or “are they creating real value for customer”. Those are the companies that make their mark in history. Amazon, Apple are some of them that I admire in those aspects.

To be a truly sustainable company, one needs to continuously evolve and rather be proactive rather than being reactive to counter a business challenge or tapping a concealed opportunity.

What it means to an individual: If you introspect as an individual, how many of us think in long term? We may have ambitions to pursue something of own, something that you are passionate of, but how many have courage to break the shackles of temptation of a secure job or immediate promotion coming.

If you see around the new age entrepreneurs and just not see their so found success, you will be amazed to see the perspiration of their toil, belief in their idea, and the tenacity and consistency of the efforts put in and just to mention many of them have left their high paying secure jobs to do so. They are not millionaires or billionaires just by chance but because they dared to think beyond the immediate gains and took the courage to walk an un-chartered path that they belief will bear fruits in time to come.

Here my intention is not to provoke anyone to quit their job but to make you realize the importance of thinking about your future in real terms where you hold for a while and assess the real value add-on that you are doing for yourself and the company. If the picture is hazy and you don’t see any clear long term objectives to relate to your current services then it’s time to retrospect for you, your team or organization to align the goals and activities in complete synchronization to get the best value out of an individual or team.

Eliminate Waste (Process):

This is something more technical and the only element most of the “so called” lean companies try to implement to look as a lean enterprise. But applying only this element serves a little and requires mandatory amalgamation of all three elements to be a truly lean organization. Some may claim quick benefits with this element alone but missing other three endangers sustainability.

What it means to an Organization: As an organization grows and, if top management are not committed to propagate a transparent culture, standard processes, continuous and shared learning environment and set up a mechanism of free information and ideas flow, the organization may trap itself in stifling innovation, reduced business flow by time as problems remains isolated, ineffective resource utilization and delineating its customer as real “voice of consumer” may not find its way to the real decision makers.

The right way is to define the objectives and make sure all the stakeholders involved has clearly understood the end goal to be achieved. Chart out the current process with assistance of people involved and create an ecosystem where all the stakeholders involved are able to communicate freely and are motivated to provide ideas to continuously improve the process by identifying and weeding out all the non-value added activities of current existing process and create a value stream that only encompasses activities that create benefits to your customer or align to your objectives. And please remember that it should not be one time activity rather the culture of persistent evaluation should be made flourished in the organization.

What it means to an individual: As an individual “eliminating waste” totally resounds with the focus. Majority of people I know lacks a sense of purpose. They are just doing their job day out and night, and involved in sort of drudgery. This lack of passion in middle level managers or top executives hurt the companies most as majority of them just fight to save their turf and is devoid of any real ambition to contribute to real positive change or enticing their customers.

The dearth of focus in life related to work, family and society led to create complexity where many of us running in haste to outperform other in terms of wealth, status etc. To simply put in the world of great Chinese deity Lao-Tzu:

“In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.”

(But here organizations also are partly to be blamed as unnecessary bureaucracies, military style hierarchical command and control system prevail leaving out minimal scope for any participatory practice to accommodate small but valuable suggestion out of the employees doing the actual work. Remember ignoring these small continuous improvements may cause an organization to lose a big opportunity.)

Respect, Challenge and Grow Them (People and Partners)

This is the strongest pillar of Toyota’s success and in my opinion(based on my knowledge at present) there is no better company that embodies “the spirit of developing people” so well, and it’s just not limited to its employees but extended to external partners as well. There is lot to learn for organizations from Toyota’s approach for its employees skill development through their core philosophy of “getting hands dirty/go see yourself” and “continuous improvement” where every opinion counts and true leader/manager’s potential are based on the skill of harnessing the collective brain power and extraordinary capabilities of its team.

What it means to an Organization:  Building a strong positive culture is a pivotal element for aligning an organization vision with employee’s goals and aspirations. As we have seen, there are plethora of examples where after casting out of a visionary or strong leader, company flounders and had to strive hard to hold the ground. Why? Because every time bringing a new leader from outside with a different set of beliefs and one who does not have a grasp of real pulse of the organization may be more devastating. Developing leaders internally or bringing outside expertise should be gradually accompanied with strong cultural orientation of the organization is the right way to go.

Treating you suppliers with respect and developing and aligning them with organization culture can go a long way in executing the strategies effectively and will be beneficial for all to survive and flourish in tough times.

What it means to an individual: In his book The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry, the author emphasis “relationship” as one of core elements to constantly derive new experiences and ideas. Similarly, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson states that many of the best works in history are results of sharing, collaborating and challenging one another to explore the adjacent possible. Therefore nourishing respectable relationship in all spheres of life is vital as others can provide one with an insightful perspective that may have been overlooked by you but have a crucial role in enriching your work in some capacity.

Continuous Improvement and Learning (Problem Solving) 

Imbibing the practice of continuous assessment and challenging the established intra- and inter-connection among people, process and technology with the intention of achieving excellence is the most critical yet the most difficult element to pursue and requires more than a serious commitment by top management.

This culture needs to be developed and propagated in the right spirit, with graceful attitude and open mindset to bear the right results. In this book, Author Jeffrey Liker has cited interesting accounts where Toyota senior management led by example in demonstrating the practice of their philosophy “Go see yourself/Getting hands Dirty” and where all the management decision are not just driven by mere intuition or based on experience but it involves painstakingly collecting the real data combined with rigorous analysis.

What it means to an Organization: Blame game during the crisis or a failed attempt is a common trait across many organizations. Many times people don’t even dare to try anything unconventional due to fear of failure. But at Toyota the attitude of self-reflection and self-criticism is the most revered quality.

In today’s fast paced environment of fierce competition and quick success, any failed strategy is relentlessly followed by punitive actions and an instant replacement with a new approach. Such haste decision is only the recipe of disaster.

The organization needs to develop perspective where errors are welcome and viewed as a new opportunity for learning and the experience to be disseminated to the whole organization. Also rather than quickly rushing to rectify the failures/mistakes one must diligently tried to identify the root cause of the problem as sometimes the real problem lies somewhere hidden from the obvious visible problem. Toyota’s “5 Why” could be an effective tool to counter this.

What it means to an individual:  It’s true that many of us really struggle to accept our individual shortcomings and always shy to be honest about our weakness. Many of us don’t even like to come out of comfort zone to explore anything new and develop any new skills with always being in self-doubt of their capability.

I totally endorse the comment made in the book by a GM at Technical Toyota Center that “If you are recognizing your weakness with sincerity ,it is the high level of strength.But it does not end there. How do you change to overcome those weakness is real continous improvement”.

In my view to succeed in life two things matters most: “right intention and your will to succeed.”

Thanks a lot for keeping up with this long post.

To remind you once more that above mentioned points are just reflection of thoughts after reading this book, as I felt that the Lean Philosophy devised by Toyota is applicable to the organization and individual in general sense also. Again to build a real Lean Enterprise using right management principles and tools please follow this wonderful book.

Any additional comments and suggestion are most welcome. Again to absorb some of above mentioned facets I would really like to have my shortcomings pointed out better than any appraise. Your suggestions will help me in improvising by next blog posts.

Also any suggestions for next best read are also invited.

Source: The Toyota Way, Jeffrey K. Liker

              The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry

               Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson