Copying Toyota’s Past Practices or Toyota’s Thinking?


With our Lean efforts, it's always good to ask, are we:

  1. Copying Toyota's past methods,
  2. Copying Toyota's current methods OR
  3. Copying Toyota's thought process and concepts

If you're a regular Lean Blog reader, you'll know that I'd argue for doing #3. The real power of Lean is in the mindset and the thinking processes. Part of the risk of #1 is that you're chasing a moving target, since Toyota is always innovating (and kaizening). What's documented formally somewhere is probably out of date and might not represent what Toyota is doing today (#2).

Here's an example that illustrates this perfectly, I think. A major company (which will remain nameless) has a “Toyota Production System” initiative and they are moving away from their long-standing practice of “kitting” parts for assembly operators. They always kitted because of the parts variability and that doing line-side storage would be very complex. It just seemed to make sense for their business.

Part of their new TPS initiative is to move away from kitting (which they called “muda,” in their attempts to be like Toyota). OK, it's waste, but is that waste worse than the tradeoffs that come with NOT kitting? The company was very proud of their attempts to be like Toyota. It wasn't clear what the benefits were, to the customer, the employee, or the company, but they were proud. They also showed a video that demonstrated the Toyota types of waste, but it was pretty superficial and seemed somewhat offbase in a couple of ways. They were trying really hard to use the lingo, but the thinking didn't seem to be there, or at least it wasn't very advanced TPS type thinking.

Well, right AFTER that speaker, we had a speaker from Toyota Logistics Services in Oregon. They talked about how they basically kitted parts for workers who were customizing/finalizing Toyota products instead of doing line-side storage. Line-side storage would take 30% more space, the presenter said, so kitting was better. Line-side storage would bring the waste of added space, which would have led to more motion for parts delivery and probably more motion in picking parts.

Plus, you might remember this article about the new Toyota San Antonio plant and how they have moved to kitting parts.

So why this other company was so opposed to kitting is beyond me. It's not “anti-TPS” to kit parts. You have to think through those tradeoffs for what makes sense to your own company. What minimizes overall total waste? What better supports your employees? Which is better for quality and flow? If the other company moved to line-side storage because they really had analyzed all alternatives, then OK. But, it sure seemed like they were blindly copying Toyota… and copying the Toyota of the past instead of the Toyota of today.

What do you think? Have you personally looked at this tradeoff between kitting and line-side storage?

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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. “What do you think? Have you personally looked at this tradeoff between kitting and line-side storage?”

    Short answer: Yes.
    Which is better? It depends.

    I think where people lose sight of things is failing to realize that the visible artifacts of the TPS are full of compromises. Both line-side storage and kitting are the end-result of conveyance, which is in itself waste. The IDEAL is that the parts are manufactured, one-by-one, immediately at the point of use. Obviously that isn’t going to happen anytime soon for alternators, though I have seen it done for some surprisingly complex things.

    In these cases, then, the next best thing is to ask “What would the ideal state LOOK LIKE to the operator?” It means he can pick the part(s), one-by-one, as he needs them.

    If there is variation, it means that there is no pick decision to make. The parts would be “manufactured” one-by-one in the same build sequence.

    If there must be a pick decision, how do you eliminate the judgment and make the “right pick” the obvious only choice?

    Kitting is one way to do this, and it works.. for the operator. Of course someone has to know what to pick, and that information must flow to her. Lots of good ways to do that.

    When reality intrudes, we need to find compromise.

    I recall a case at “former company” where they were seriously discussing passing a kit-box from supplier to supplier to build up a kit of parts which would then be delivered into the factory ready to go to the line. While it obviously seemed like a good idea to them, when they asked, my response was simply “Why on Earth would you want to do that?” The consequences and disruptions caused by any of the many possible failure points were far worse than the waste they were trying to eliminate.

    Sometimes it is a case of deciding which waste is “better” and living with that for a while.

  2. Mark — good explanation. Of course, “it depends.” I think that proves the point that the decision should be based on using our brains and “what makes sense” way more than someone asking, “What Would Toyota Do?” (WWTD)

  3. Looking past the obvious in what Toyota does is always a good thing. Copying a technique without understanding the physics of the situation is not accomplishing the organizational learning and growth that comes with understanding.

    Having set up “kitting” areas and used the process to support the operator making the part, there are many factors that must be put into play.

    At times in could be to reduce the complexity at the operation. It also could be to reduce structure cost to eliminate having multiple error proofing devices which have to be purchased, installed and maintained. It may also be a method to reduce the manufacturing footprint. If I can shorten the main line then I can reduce the overall footprint of the facility.

    What it doesn’t mean is that is a one time event. It maybe a stepping stone for a longer range initiative. In San Antonio Toyota reduced their manpower and moved it to the on site suppliers by having the parts kitted and improving the value added work of their team members.

  4. It sounds like this company may have been doing something that looked like kitting but missed the thinking behind the application.

    Kitting almost always makes sense when it helps reduce the net amount of waste. Waste in the parts kitting area is not equal to waste in the assembly area, however. It is better to isolate the waste off-line and keep the line running as smoothly as possible, then focus on making kitting easier.

    The move away from kitting in this case may have been an example of just attacking waste wherever you see it, rather than starting downstream and working up. Or perhaps a new leader simply had a preconception that kitting is bad. I’ve run into that sort of thing before.

    Lean is whatever works to make things better, safer, easier, and not any particular tool or strictly applied formula.


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