Cuba, Lean and the Virtues of a Non-Standard World

I have no recommendations in this post, only a question arising from a trip to Cuba. Are we missing the development of some human quality, a value, a set of skills, in our search for standardization and efficiency?

My wife and I just returned from a week in Cuba, not merely sight-seeing, but meeting with economists, activists and government officials and all the time reflecting on the dramatic transitions Cuban society is just beginning to encounter. It is a trip I recommend.

CubaCars46We live in a world of standardization. Lean manufacturing or Toyota Production System is necessarily based on standardization, repeatable processes, identical parts, designed for ease of installation and reliability. But, what if every automobile was not the same as every other one and had its own story to tell? What if every car had a completely unique history and no two cars had the same parts? What if there were no replacement parts – no Autozone or NAPA, or dealership parts department? Welcome to Cuba!


One of the great joys of visiting Cuba is seeing the sight of the cars of my childhood, 1955 Chevys, Fords, Dodges, Desotos, Cadillacs and even Hudson Hornets driving through the streets and countryside as if time had stood still for the past sixty years. The best of these cars (estimated about 6,000 “Yank Tanks”) in Havana alone, are used as taxis catering to tourists. While many show their years, many are also maintained to remarkable standards – perfect chrome, paint and interiors. Yes, there are some new Hyundais, VWs and Cherrys from China. They are of no interest.

CubaCars61I am a “car guy.” While in high school, my father bought me (for $15) a Volvo 444 from the junk yard. It literally had holes, not dents, in the fenders, no engine, no transmission, no seats, and required repair of everything. I earned the money to buy a used engine and transmission, seats from another wrecked Volvo, and plastered on dozens of cans of Bondo. I drove that car through my senior year in high school and then sold it to a good friend as he went off to college and I joined the Army. He drove it for four years through college. So you can imagine the admiration I have for the mechanics who restore and maintain these sixty year-old cars in Cuba.

CubaCars60I had one advantage. I could buy parts. Cubans, due to our senseless embargo, have to invent or rebuild everything! If a generator dies (before alternators!) they can’t buy a new one. It has to be rebuilt. Cuba is the opposite of our replacement, throw-away economy. It is the world of non-standardization rather than standardization. And it is a world that requires a degree of inventiveness, improvisation, ingenuity that may have been lost to us. There is a price to pay for efficiency.

Imagine the mental activity of a clerk in the parts department as you explain that you need a replacement alternator and he goes to his parts catalog and retrieves an identical unit from a well organized parts shelf. Now imagine the mental activity of a Cuban mechanic as he stares at a failed generator knowing that there is no replacement part and it must be repaired if the car is to run at all. Who is more skilled, more creative, more ingenious?

As a long time advocate of the Toyota Production System, I am not recommending abandoning it. Of course we have better cars, more efficient, economical and reliable than anything produced in the 1950’s. But, have we also lost something? Have we lost automotive design as an art form rather than merely an exercise in computer generated aerodynamic efficiency? Have we lost a love affair of the heart in the pursuit of rational statistical standards?CubaCars49

One of the entrepreneurs who owns NostaliaCars one of the many restorers of Yank Tanks.

One of the entrepreneurs who owns NostalgiCar one of the many restorers of Yank Tanks.

Due to the search for fuel economy and aerodynamic efficiency all modern cars have remarkable similar shapes, essentially designed by wind tunnels and computer algorithms. There is very little artistic value in any modern automotive design. Looking at these beautifully maintained relics one can’t help but wonder if we haven’t sacrificed too much artistic creativity for the virtue of efficiency.

Cuba has a very rich artistic community – rich in creativity, not money! And that may be the result of the absence of standardization, the absence of a McDonald’s or Starbucks every mile. Perhaps they are able to imagine colors and forms that we have forgotten.

Cars of Cuba

A 1936 Ford undergoing restoration at Nostalgicars

Sometimes it is worthwhile to consider the virtues a world dramatically different than our own. As we met with economists and government officials there was no doubt that they were beginning to embrace private enterprise and they recognized the necessity of incentives, capital investment and entrepreneurship. They get it. But, they also promised that they wanted to maintain the uniqueness that is Cuba. They promised no McDonald’s, KFC or Starbucks, and continuation of their free healthcare and education. I hope they keep their promise and their uniqueness. It will be difficult but they deserve our support, if for no other reason than that we can observe a worthwhile experiment in alternative patterns of thought and behavior based on values that may have become foreign to us. We can learn something from them. Let us not insist that they become just like us… one more stamped out part of the production system of globalization. Let them have their own way. There is virtue in diversity and I am convinced we can learn something from meditation on the culture and mechanics of Cuba.

I am not glamorizing their condition. Their buildings are literally falling down (one every day in Havana we were told by a city planner!) for lack of maintenance, their store shelves are almost bare, their agriculture unproductive, and their Internet service primitive. Yet, while walking the streets of Vanales and Havana I am certain that their children are just as happy as our children, their families just as strong (I am being generous to us!), and their music and art more joyous. We can gain from one another.

For more photos of the cars and art of Cuba see my photo album at You can find an hour long film on the “Yank Tanks” at 

Cars of Cuba


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