Books on lean management and the Toyota Production System are too often presented as if this system has been a virtual heaven of production efficiency and worker satisfaction. In the author’s enthusiasm, questions about stress and work life are rarely raised or they are glossed over. In Japan there have been serious issues raised about the quality of work life at Toyota plants and Toyota has openly addressed this issue itself, along with its union, and conducted its own whole-system redesign to improve the attractiveness and reduce the stresses of working within their system.
For the past month I have been sitting here, very focused, on completing another book (yes, one more!) on transformational change management, or whole-system architecture. Lean is a description of a desired state. Within lean is an incremental change process – continuous improvement. But, it is not a process of significant or transformational change. It is the “Where are we going?’ but not, the “How do we get there?” Many companies fail in their adoption of lean because they do not address the “whole-system” and misaligned structure, information systems, HR policies and other cultural drivers inhibit the transformation to lean. Whole-system architecture is a way of addressing the needed transformational change.
The good thing about book writing (you should try it!) is that it forces you to think, to research, and to organize your thoughts. While doing my research I came across what I think is a very interesting article on how Toyota addressed significant quality of work life issues. For those of you who are serious students of lean you may wish to go to the source and read the entire article.
Quality of Work Life and the Toyota System
In the 1990′s Toyota faced its own labor crisis with a 25% rate of turnover among new recruits to the workforce, an aging labor force, and a general aversion among young Japanese to working in factories. This raised serious questions within Toyota about their own system and how it impacted the quality of work life. The following paragraphs are quotes from an important study of what Toyota did in response to this crisis, a study that has been overlooked by most proponents of lean manufacturing.
“Facing up to the labour shortage and to the exhaustion of the whole work force, the management and the union at Toyota began to question the production system and the method of managing work. They concluded that a radical resolution of the crisis of work could only be found in a reorganization of the production system to make work more attractive, for they were in agreement that the cause of the labour shortage was the nature of assembly line work and the Toyotaist method of managing work.”
“The management of efficiency lay in the reduction of the number of workers, which was accomplished by Kaizen activities on production tasks and procedures. This in turn was based upon the ideas of ‘just-in-time’ and ‘autonomization’ (labour saving) which had been sustained and developed by T. Ohno. But the underlying cause of the crisis of work that Toyota was experiencing was precisely this system for managing productive efficiency. Therefore the idea of ‘just-in-time’ was questioned. ‘Just-in-time should not be applied to people’, according to a section leader at the Motomachi factory. ‘If the number of production workers is increased, productive efficiency will be lowered. But we should not think solely about productive efficiency’, according to the personnel management department. The implication is that the reduction in the number of production workers should not be pushed too far. In other words, ‘lean production’ should not be applied to production workers. Otherwise, work will continue to be detested by the younger generation and will continue to tire production workers and supervisors. Hence the committee proposed to modify the management of costs.”
“This questioning of the production system has finished by modifying the idea of ‘just-in-time’ and the management of productive efficiency: ‘just-in-time should not be applied to people’, and ‘we should not think solely about productive efficiency’. Hence a humanization of the production system and of work was launched. By investing massively to improve working conditions, by developing a new conception of the production line, by allowing segments of the line to keep buffer stocks, by making social relations of work more equitable and rational, Toyota has changed the rules of the game. For Toyota, ‘lean production’ appears to be the model of the past, because it placed too much pressure on people. The new strategy at Toyota is to give a more humane dimension to its production system but without hindering productivity; even if progress remains slow, and is held back by the old Toyotaism.”
“In terms of team work, four production workers form a work team which is responsible for a segment composed of a series of connected tasks (three or four tasks). The work team takes responsibility for the quality of its tasks, whereas on traditional lines, each person is responsible individually.” 
The Imperative to Redesign… Periodically
Thomas Jefferson is reported to have said that “Revolutions in human affairs, like storms in the natural environment are, from time to time, a necessary and desirable thing.” He is also reported to have suggested every twenty years. The point is that every now and then we need to rethink our system of organization – the social, technical and economic system – or the “whole-system architecture” in order to assure that we are adapting to change in the internal and external environment. This is exactly what Toyota has done.
The lesson of Toyota’s experience at its own plants is that the lean system of production is not simply a technical, mechanical, system in which the only goal is to improve production efficiency by eliminating waste; although, that will always be one of the goals. It is also necessary to design a system that takes into account the human factor, the social system that enriches the work and the quality of work life.
The other lesson from the above study is that the Toyota Production System, or lean, is an “open-system” able, no required, to adapt to the environment in which it lives. Like every organic system, it either adapts or dies.