Ten (Mostly) Common Misconceptions About Toyota & Lean
I found this interesting column from Quality Digest, by Stewart Anderson, a guy who says he has first hand experience with Toyota people and suppliers. The website bio page requires registration to view, which is a ridiculous request of QD, I believe. So out of principle, I’m not registering just for that. There is a short “about the author” at the bottom of the article that doesn’t really distinguish his background (such as, did he really work for Toyota or not?).
It’s generally a good piece, an attempt to knock down some of the misperceptions about Lean. That’s important work, helping people understand what’s really Lean and what’s L.A.M.E. I don’t agree with all of it… I’ll outline my comments below.
Anderson highlights a theme that I heard expressed by Mike Hoseus and David Meier last week — that TPS is ultimately about the thought process:
Toyota’s basic pattern for improving a process is based on a simple three-part model:
- Understanding the current condition.
- Developing and defining a target condition.
- Understanding and tackling problems which need to be overcome to move from the current condition to the target condition.
That’s far more important than individual tools, like 5S and kanban.
Misconception #2: Toyota operates a just-in-time system.
He is right in mentioning that “one piece flow” is an ideal state not always reached by Toyota. With the NUMMI plant in California, Toyota had to significantly vary its supply chain operations from the methods used in Japan. Getting parts via rail from the midwest is very different than getting parts via truck in a small country. “Zero inventories” isn’t the end-all-be-all goal, nor is it achieved by Toyota. Anderson basically restates the same point as Misconception #6 (“Toyota uses one-piece flow in all processes”), so this is probably just 9 Misconceptions, not 10.
Misconception #5: Toyota’s shop floor is linked to and controlled by a powerful IT system.
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I think Anderson is wrong in the sense that the misconception about Toyota is often quite the opposite. I think the common misconception is that Toyota is a bunch of Luddites who do everything with paper and pencil. Toyota DOES use technology — but only the right technology that serves their people and processes (as written about by Jeff Liker and others — see Principle 8). Anderson is right in saying:
Toyota uses IT systems with discretion to support its operations, primarily using such systems in the areas of supplier interface and control, and outbound distribution logistics.
That middle ground normally is reached from a starting point of misconceiving that Toyota uses almost no IT. I don’t know anybody who has ever thought Toyota goes overboard with technology. I wonder where Anderson got this impression?
My nitpicking aside, take a look at his list – some real misconceptions are there, and he knocks them down.