Liker: Auto Suppliers Still Not Lean


Lean Blog: LeanBlog Podcast #3 — Dr. Jeffrey Liker

I hope you have listened to the LeanBlog Podcasts. I'm surprised that they haven't generated more comments and questions from listeners. In my third Podcast, the first one with Jeff Liker, there was a provocative comment… maybe nobody disagrees with it.

Back in 2000, Dr. Liker was quoted as saying “50% of auto suppliers are talking lean, 2% are actually doing it.” I got a lot of mileage out of that quote in presentations from 2002 to 2004 and still referenced it this year. Before the podcast interview, I asked Dr. Liker to confirm he had said that, as I didn't have the original citation/source in front of me.

“It sounds like something I would have said.” — Jeff Liker.

So, on the podcast, I asked Dr. Liker how those numbers would be different here in 2006 (it was about six minutes into the podcast). I've been away from the auto industry, I don't really know anymore. His answer:

“Today I would say that well over 90 percent are talking about it and have talked about it. I would say that almost all of them that talked about it have done something. They've done some individual projects, they've hired consultants, they've done projects in individual plants. They've done kaizen workshops. They've kind of learned the words and they've seen some results. I would say the number that have deeply implemented the Toyota Production System, as a system, in their plants is probably below 2 percent.”

Wow. It's disappointing that there hasn't been an improvement over the span of six years, with all of the consultants, all of the talk, all of the books. Does anyone disagree with Liker's assessment? Click “comments” to chime in.

Liker continued:

“What they've done is used individual tools in individual places. Occasionally, there's a plant manager who really has a good feel, that drives it through the whole plant, does a great job. They leave the company. The plant reverts back to what it was.

If you were to try to find a model supplier that really has TPS broadly across their plants, it's hard to find.

It sounds like he is pointing blame at the lack of leadership and real committment at the highest levels. If lean/TPS efforts can fall apart so easily after a Plant Manager leaves, you would have to presume that Lean wasn't a priority for higher levels… or the leadership was just ineffective.

We could do a “5 Why's” Challenge. Another type of comment you could post here is a 5 Why's analysis for a failed lean effort that you've seen. Maybe we'll come up with a prize for the best attempt or best comment.

I'm also taking a fresh stab at the “Lean Failures” blog that I set up last year — take a look and feel free to share your experiences and tips there.

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Why was lean failing (this is back to a company I worked with previously):

    Why was lean failing?

    1) Middle managers weren’t involved enough, didn’t seem to care — why?

    2) Lack of metrics that measured how much they were participating in lean — why?

    3) Lack of leadership from above, Directors and higher — why?

    4) Lack of leadership or clear definition from higher up in the corporation — why?

    5) Lack of interest on Wall Street’s part, lack of knowledge see past management’s BS about how “lean” they were getting, when reality didn’t match

    Do we blame Wall Street when it’s a public company? Did I ask “why” too many times? The most solvable problem would involve company leadership — if lean isn’t driven by the CEO, then somebody at some level isn’t going to support lean and it might fall apart. But what if/when the CEO leaves? It really would take many many years for lean to get so ingrained that it wouldn’t fall apart, huh?

  2. I’m with the second anonymous post. If one out of every 50 plants (especially in automotive) has broadly adopted TPS and ingrained it in their culture, I would be shocked. I would put the number at somewhere less than 1 in 500 automotive plants not transplanted here with Toyota.

    All that most people are doing is shoe-horning tools and words in to their traditional manufacturing worlds. This results in “flavor of the month” type cost-cutting strategies and not revolutions in the way the businesses are run. If people see benefits from their kaizen events, then that is usually good enough. If they don’t, then lean doesn’t work in their plant/industry/environment/(insert excuse here).

  3. Not to be too cynical, but I think some perspective is an order here.

    Lean isn’t just a workflow, kaizen workshop, or manufacturing issue. Its much more than that. Its also a culture of continuous improvement. Should we expect to see a cultural change over the course of 6 years? Definitely not. 25 years? Much more likely. Sad, but thats the nature of cultural change. Especially when working with engineers (trust me, I am one and I work with them all day, and I’ve never seen so many people be so afraid of changing their habits).

    Also, we cant blame management all the time. The workers need to accept Lean, and they can sometimes be the greatest resistance (they are on my team at least). Every individual needs to buy into Lean in order to make it a success. I’ve seen many other “versions” of Lean processes (in software, and the one discriminator between success and failure is the whole team must buy into the philosophy.

    Great blog, because it creates good discussion. Keep it coming.

  4. Thanks Joe. Sure, there is plenty of blame to go around. But, whose fault is it if the “workers” aren’t excited about lean? Maybe the workers fear for their jobs, maybe lean hasn’t been explained or done in ways that benefit them. That’s all clearly the responsibility of leadership and management, I’d say. It’s good to ask “Why” — why are the workers resistant to lean. I don’t like “they don’t like to change” as an answer. Why else are they resistant?

    You’re right that lean takes a long time. I think 6 years is enough. Norm Bodek commented in a Podcast that Toyota expects the new San Antonio plant to take “3 to 5 years” to fully become a lean/TPS culture. So, if it takes them 3 years, I’d give anyone else twice as long to do it, I think that’s generous.

  5. To Joe’s point that it takes a long time to achieve cultural transition: Leadership can get the process started and good management can cement it in place, and the confidence of the workers will help it grow, but if your management team and your leadership is changing every twenty-four to thirty-six months, you will not get the deeply rooted long term impact that is desired.

  6. Dear Mr. Mark Graban,

    Its a nice blog post, the topic Lean Suppliers in Automobile.
    As rightly briefed by Jeff Liker on your blog the automobile suppliers have started knowing the words like TPS, Lean, Kanban System, Goods & Information flow etc but at very nascent level. But as we all know “a born baby cannot run immediately”. It takes it own time to know the world, learn & unlearn and then becomes mature. Toyota Production System realizes in Step-by-Step Approach. For people who are new (coming from India, I can quote Indian Local Suppliers as “new”) to TPS might feel it’s not giving results aggressively. But once TPS is realized by them(few suppliers), it has become their source of revenue generation in terms of productivity improvement, shorter CT/LT etc.

    Kaizen brings a new Culture. Just take it as an example, XYZ Supplier hires ABC Consultant for TPS Implementation. The consultants implement it & set rules for processes & simultaneously develop human resources for sustainment of the Lean Systems. As we know few Kaizen gives results on longer duration & hence as a human tendency to move towards the comfort zone, deviations start happening in the set processes & hence the results might not be seen. Hence the TPS comes out of Supplier Management’s focus. But based on my Genba Experience, The success lies only in People. Developing manpower at genba, Consult each & every genba staff during process improvement program, give respect & develop mutual trust during implementation. These are vital for Process Improvement & Sustainment that many existing Kaizen Consultants lacks. Hence sustainment becomes a challenge. Thus many supplier not able to implement TPS yet they are willing to. What they require is proper guidance & real know-how transfer.

    Good to hear from you Mark.

    Best Wishes
    My Mission: To make TPS fans worldwide. Success of an enterprise lies only in TPS/Lean Manufacturing.


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