Talk to somebody at Toyota about the Toyota Production System and you can hardly avoid getting a lecture on the importance of teamwork. All systems are there to support the team doing value-added work. But teams do not do value-added work. Individuals do. The teams coordinate the work, motivate, and learn from each other. Teams suggest innovative ideas, even control through peer pressure. Nevertheless, for the most part, it is more efficient for individuals to do the actual detailed work necessary to produce a product. Teams can coordinate in meetings, but in most cases, not a whole lot of the detailed work gets done if individuals spend all their time in meetings.
Toyota has established an excellent balance between individual work and group work and between individual excellence and team effectiveness. While teamwork is critical, having individuals work together in a group does not compensate for a lack of individual excellence or understanding of Toyota’s system. Excellent individual performers are required to make up teams that excel. This is why Toyota puts such a tremendous effort in finding and screening prospective employees. It wants the right individuals to train and empower to work in teams. When Toyota selects one person out of hundreds of job applicants after searching for many months, it is sending a message—the capabilities and characteristics of individuals matter. The years spent carefully grooming each individual to develop depth of technical knowledge, a broad range of skills, and a second-nature understanding of Toyota’s philosophy speaks to the importance of the individual in Toyota’s system.
Toyota’s assumption is that if you make teamwork the foundation of the company, individual performers will give their hearts and souls to make the company successful. Originally, the Toyota Production System was called the “respect for humanity system.” As you will read on, you will see that the Toyota Way is not about lavishing goodies on people whether they have earned them or not; it is about challenging and respecting employees at the same time.