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The Toyota Way Is More than Tools and Techniques

So you set up your kanban system. (Kanban is the Japanese word for “card,” “ticket,” or “sign” and is a tool for managing the flow and production of materials in a Toyota-style “pull” production system.) You plug in the andon, which is a visual control device in a production area that alerts workers to defects, equipment abnormalities, or other problems using signals such as lights, audible alarms, etc. Finally, with these devices your workplace looks like a Toyota plant. Yet, over time your workplace reverts to operating like it did before. You call in a Toyota Production System (TPS) expert who shakes her head disapprovingly. What is wrong?

The real work of implementing Lean has just begun. Your workers do not understand the culture behind TPS. They are not contributing to the continuous improvement of the system or improving themselves. In the Toyota Way, it’s the people who bring the system to life: working, communicating, resolving issues, and growing together. From the first look at excellent companies in Japan practicing lean manufacturing, it was clear that the workers were active in making improvement suggestions. But the Toyota Way goes well beyond this; it encourages, supports, and in fact demands employee involvement.

The more I have studied TPS and the Toyota Way, the more I understand that it is a system designed to provide the tools for people to continually improve their work. The Toyota Way means more dependence on people, not less. It is a culture, even more than a set of efficiency and improvement techniques. You depend upon the workers to reduce inventory, identify hidden problems, and fix them. The workers have a sense of urgency, purpose, and teamwork because if they don’t fix it there will be an inventory outage. On a daily basis, engineers, skilled workers, quality specialist, vendors, team leaders, and—most importantly—operators are all involved in continuous problem solving and improvement, which over time trains everyone to become better problem solvers.

One lean tool that facilitates this teamwork is called 5S (sort, stabilize, shine, standardize, sustain, discussed in Use Visual Control So No Problems Are Hidden), which is a series of activities for eliminating wastes that contribute to errors, defects, and injuries. In this improvement method, the fifth S, sustain, is arguably the hardest. It’s the one that keeps the first four S’s going by emphasizing the necessary education, training, and rewards needed to encourage workers to properly maintain and continuously improve operating procedures and the workplace environment. This effort requires a combination of committed management, proper training, and a culture that makes sustaining improvement a habitual behavior from the shop floor to management.

This article provides a synopsis of the 14 principles that constitute the Toyota Way. The principles are organized in four broad categories: 1) Long-Term Philosophy, 2) The Right Process Will Produce the Right Results (this utilizes many of the TPS tools), 3) Add Value to the Organization by Developing Your People, and 4) Continuously Solving Root Problems Drives Organizational Learning. Note that Part II of this book is also organized into these same four categories—the four “P’s” of the Toyota Way model in Using Operational Excellence as a Strategic Weapon. In the following two chapters, I will demonstrate some of these 14 principles at work in the development of Lexus and Prius. If you would like to jump ahead to begin the detailed discussion of these 14 principles, you can skip to Base Your Management Decisions on a Long-Term Philosophy now. However, I do advise that you peruse the principles below.

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