Toyota and lean management

Lean management is an interpretation of the “Toyota System”. Historically, a group of MIT researchers were sent by major American automobile manufacturers (General Motors, Ford, etc.) to conduct a study on the Toyota system. Their goal: understand how this Japanese company managed to sell cars in the United States, and in such great numbers?

The findings of this research were called “Lean production” and published in 1990 in the book «The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production». These researchers are Dan Jones (English) and Jim Womack (American); they are still considered to be the founding fathers of Lean today.

Lean management thinkers are still working to decrypt Toyota’s DNA today.

The Toyota system – a definition

If Lean management is inspired by the Toyota model, what do we know about this model today? According to Toyota’s corporate communication, the system has two components:

The production system (Toyota Production System or TPS) aims at delivering reliable, sustainable and high quality products to customers.

It has two main pillars that guide all industrial choices, from investment to process structure:

  • on demand production: the production is done at the customer’s pace and “parts” are used as late as possible. This is called just-in-time production (“time” being that of the customer)
  • -the jidoka or make the defects visible. This means that the visual environment is designed to show problems immediately, it also means that everyone is allowed to stop a process as soon as a default occurs.

The management system (Toyota Way) describes the main values ​​of the company. As TPS, it has two main pillars, for a total of 5 values:

Continuous improvement : The whole production system (TPS) is designed to show where the weaknesses of the process are. The “continuous improvement” pillar offers an approach and a mindset to address these weaknesses. It englobes the first 3 values ​​of the Toyota Way:

1. Genchi genbutsu: going to the source to find the origin of the problem and solve it to ensure the required quality.

2. Kaizen: means continuous improvement, it is both a process as well as a philosophy. Everyone can pick a problem and decide to work with other employees to solve it. It is also called “thinking production system”.

3. Challenge: Toyota’s spirit is to challenge the status quo to find new ideas, even when things are going well. At Toyota Material Handling France, 3,000 innovative ideas emerge and are implemented each year.

Respect is the second pillar. It includes two values:

4. Respect means that the employees can play an active role in their work environment. They also benefit from a corporate policy which aims at providing them with the right environment (training, work station, process) so that they can have a successful day.

5. Teamwork promotes collective success, as in a sport team, rather than individual performance. This is considered more respectful of people and overall more effective.

To learn more about these two subjects, here’s an excellent video of Toyota Material Handling (in French):

Lean management and Toyota – conclusion

Engaging into Lean management means, basically, hoping to obtain, in your own environment, the same results as Toyota: reaching the leading position on the very long term, remaining robust whatever the circumstances and profitable every day. This is why, regardless of your understanding of Lean, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • are we building an operational system that works just in time and stops at the first defect?
  • do we go to the field to practice problem solving? Does our management system encourage individual respect and does it value the success of the team?

If not, that means that your interpretation of Lean management is partial and … that your results will be that too.

Original piece written by Marie-Pia Ignace, translated by Frédéric Buono

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