So What Happened to Toyota???

With the rash of recalls, deadly accidents and a pending congressional investigation into Toyota’s quality problems an entire industry of consultants, book publishing, and training has been thrown into disarray.

Last week I was at a client and I was explaining some point of lean culture and I used an example from Toyota. The union president who was in attendance stood up and said “I’ll tell you one thing, you better not tell us to do anything because Toyota did it. Ten people in the past week have come up to me and told me that we aren’t doing anything because Toyota does it.” That about sums up the sentiment out there.

I was tempted to reply that my relationship had been with Honda anyway and I didn’t see why Toyota got so much credit, but I restrained myself… wisely, I think.

So the question is… has all the adoration, the pursuit of the Toyota Production System (TPS), aka “lean manufacturing”, “lean thinking” and anything else “lean” that might make a good book title, been a completely mistaken pursuit? Have we all been misled?

The short answer is an emphatic “no!”

Every automotive company, in fact every manufacturing company worth a darn, has adopted TPS to some degree and would benefit by adopting more. Honda freely acknowledges that they copied TPS and have developed their own adaptations and innovations, as have others. The essential elements of eliminating waste, reducing throughput times, creating a high involvement-high responsibility workforce, continuous flow assembly and continuous improvement, are indisputably effective.

What went wrong at Toyota has NOTHING to do with the factory floor operations. What went wrong was entirely a problem of senior management failing to respond in a timely and effective way. What happened to Toyota is what happens to virtually every great company.

At this risk of appearing to shamelessly promote my own book, in Barbarians to Bureaucrats, I described the parallel of great companies to the rise and fall of civilizations. In achieving greatness the leaders most often also achieve hubris, the arrogance of success and power. Humility is an essential element of learning and improvement and its antithesis, arrogance, is the assassin of success.

The problem with unpredictable acceleration has been in the lap of Toyota senior managers for years. They engaged in self-denial, halfhearted measures to fix the problem, and hoped it would go away. When executives become so certain of the success of their company they lose a healthy paranoia. Andy Grove was right: Only the paranoid survive.

I feel deeply sorry for the tens of thousands of Toyota workers and front line managers who everyday are working to make the best possible cars, continuously improving their product and process. They had nothing to do with this. It was a design problem and a leadership problem. I also feel sorry for any manufacturers who take glee in this and choose to dismiss all of the many valuable lessons that can and should be learned from Toyota, Honda, and other lean companies.


So What Happened to Toyota??? — 3 Comments

  1. Before I heartily thank J. McGovern, who referred me to your post, I want to thank you for this insightful, thought-provoking piece. Then I will look into your book, and then more about you. Congratulations for infusing some clear, fresh thought into the cloudy American mainstream.

  2. Just to clarify my statement. I am the Union President that Larry refers to in his above statement. What I said was please tell the coaches not to mention the “Toyota way” in their meetings with our employees. The feedback that I was given from my membership. “We make Medicine”. “If we made Medicine for our customers like Toyota makes cars you can imagine the results”. “Imagine how long we would be in business if the majority of our medicine thay we make has to be recalled and taken off the shelf because there was somethong wrong with it, up to and including causing deaths.” Do you think our customers who we are making the medicine for would ever trust us again? If Larry doesn’t see why Toyota got so much credit, then why are they referenced so much in his book, as the shining example. “That we need to follow the efficiencies of companies like Toyota and Honda.” I thought that Toyota had an “ownership culture” that went all the way down to the shop floor. Every employee at Toyota, from the top down owns what goes out of their plants. Just like everyone at my plant form the top down owns the medicine that leaves here. If we know something is wrong “FIX IT”. If no one is listening find someone who will.

  3. Ed’s point is certainly a good one. If a pharmaceutical company committed the errors committed by Toyota they would be out of business.

    But, it is also true that Toyota, and Honda, still created models of manufacturing that have proven to be a better way in hundreds, if not thousands of companies. But, that does not make them infallible.

    And, Ed right, “If we know something is wrong FIX IT! If no one is listening, find someone who will.”

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