Nearly every current or former Toyota employee can tell you the wonderful things they learned about The Toyota Way (TW) and about the Toyota Production System (TPS). But of course, not all of us have had the benefit of working at Toyota Motor Corporation. But, some of us are fortunate to have learned about TW+ TPS directly from former Toyota employees – especially those who learned their lessons well. After all, you don’t want to learn something that affects the lives of other people from someone who does not know what they are doing.

The first people to come out of Toyota and teach TW+TPS to a broader audience were the consultants from Shingijutsu in 1988. I am very fortunate to have been trained by Shingijutsu starting 20 years ago. Even more so because I have recently come to realize, with much greater clarity, that I learned my fundamentals very well. I focused on mastering the basics and dealing with problems immediately, as sensei Nakao and his team taught me to do. Their great training plus my daily practice has given me something truly special.

However, many people seem to drift away from what they were taught. It appears that people forget what they were taught due to a lack of practice, or are easily influenced by people who lack the training lineage to Toyota (and, therefore, Mr. Ohno). Mr. Nakao notices this and urges his students to continuously improve their understanding of kaizen (inclusive of the “Respect for People” principle).

I suppose drift is inevitable as many people rush to cash in on training other people on a proven method to grow sales, reduce costs, expand margins, etc. Yet these benefits are really only attainable if one thinks hard and focuses on doing the work correctly. In most cases, people do not, and what you’re actually seeing, especially in large corporations, is a combination of Lean management done poorly and financial engineering (“money games,” as one of my senseis used to say).

The image below illustrates how TW+TPS has drifted over time and the sad end-point that we could be headed for.


The further removed we get from “The Originals” in time, the more likely that Lean (TW+TPS) has drifted far from its true way of thinking and practice. Let me say it another way: The later an organization is to Lean management, the more likely it is that they will not actually do Lean. Instead, they will do derivatives far removed from the original TW+TPS thinking and practice, and become “certified” for that.

Sometimes, a little drift can be a good thing because it can result in improved ways of thinking and practice. But, the typical outcome is one in which bad things happen when drift occurs. Foremost is the introduction of ways of thinking and practices that are inconsistent with TW+TPS, such as: change management, organizational behavior and organizational development interventions, project management control of kaizen, ROI calculations for kaizen, crazing things like 5S kaizen (i.e. “atomized” kaizen), veneration of value stream maps and A3 reports, and so on. This changes the language, concept, thinking, and practice, which, in turn, changes the outcomes – typically, a few tiny improvements made very slowly over time.

In order for a process such as Lean transformation to be a success, its settings can not be changed indiscriminately – which is what happens when people don’t think or don’t know what they are doing, usually as a result of learning from the wrong people. The desired outcome is many improvements made quickly.

Isn’t it remarkable that in the organizations where the adoption of Lean management (TW+TPS) has been most successful, the kaizen facilitators had no scholarly knowledge of or formal training in organizational behavior, organizational development, or change management. The sensei’s process for organizational change is as follows: A day or so of classroom training in basic industrial engineering methods, then off to the gemba for 3-7 days of hands-on kaizen focused on converting batch-and-queue processes (in manufacturing or service work) to flow. And then repeat the improvement cycle over and over again to deepen and expand one’s learning. That’s it.

Please think more deeply about kaizen (done right) and its importance in simultaneously developing people while improving processes, and in correcting the drift threatens the integrity of progressive Lean management.

2 Responses to Lessons Well Learned

  1. eric says:

    This sounds like certification by another means. If I can trace my lineage to someone who is considered an original, I’ll have received good instruction and am likely to do a good job with a transformation. This suggests that the converse must be true… I can’t really trace my lean training back to an Original, therefor I’ve never practiced the true faith and am less than. No one should hire me for help.

    I worked at an organization that claimed it wanted to start a transformation, assembled a team of lean and six sigma people to help improve Operations. One of the team of 10 came from Toyota. He turned out to be a relatively weak member of the team. He had never worked anywhere that wasn’t already well down the lean path, when he uttered Japanese phrases like they were self-evident truths, people looked at him like he was speaking…. Japanese. His version of ‘respect for people’ often involved yelling. I’m not saying Toyota failed him, I am saying the r^2 for the fit of lineage to success with lean is less than 1.

    I feel strongly about this because I am a MBB abandoned Six Sigma and studied lean. What you initially describe is certification. Say what you want about perfect practice making perfect… The people we help will miss the second part (lessons well learned) and focus on the easier to determine first part (lineage). That is certification. And it will have the same corrosive effect on lean as the over-reliance on certification did for Six Sigma.

    Your call to action is good, and it is something I think about in my current role -how to develop people while developing the processes; what out of my bag of lean and Six Sigma is vanity and waste. But… I think the whole “trace your lineage” is self-serving and undercuts your point.

    • Bob Emiliani says:

      No, I do not mean certifications. I never liked Lean certifications because they suggest one has achieved something important and is now “done.” My message is that there is value in learning from the originals, if one takes advantage of that (many don’t). The tacit knowledge gained is invaluable, though it can be received in other ways as well – it’s just more work (study and practice). It’s the same as learning to play violin from Itzhak Perlman versus learning to play violin from someone who is far less accomplished. Gaining an accurate understanding of Lean management informs skilled practice. Those who have inaccurate understandings of Lean management are less skilled in their practice and contribute to drift and the formation of derivatives that work poorly or not at all.

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