An Interesting Quote from Steve Spear on Toyota and Surprises


I recorded an upcoming LeanBlog Podcast with Steven J. Spear yesterday.

Here is that episode:

He's promoting his new book Chasing the Rabbit: How Market Leaders Outdistance the Competition and How Great Companies Can Catch Up and Win.

Update: the book was republished as The High-Velocity Edge: How Market Leaders Leverage Operational Excellence to Beat the Competition.

Based on my initial reading, the book is very fascinating (and I've heard some of the stories and the thesis of his book during a few of his speaking engagements). I think this is going to become required reading in the Lean world, his book. Has anyone else read it yet?

So, I asked Steve about how he got started with Lean.

When working for Toyota in Japan (in the 1980s), he was first sent to work the assembly line at a different company. This was done so, when he came to Toyota, they had “created the opportunity to be surprised.” Spear had to first see a non-Toyota factory so he could be surprised by how Toyota did things.

He generalized the comment and said that the key to Toyota's culture is:

Creating opportunities to be surprised.”

What an interesting thought.

Most companies hate surprises. They hate problems. They hate mistakes.

I guess that's one of the fundamental differences that's hard to copy from the Toyota culture and mindsets…

Update: Check out these episodes of “My Favorite Mistake” where two former Toyota people, Isao Yoshino and David Meier, talk about this culture of learning from mistakes without blame or punishment.

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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. Mark:

    Yes, I’ve read it. An amazing book in my opinion. It takes us beyond the level of tools and approaches to some “meta-tools”: the capabilities that underly Toyota (and other great organizations) success. Steve Spear and Kent Bowen actually laid out this frame work in their seminal article “The DNA of the Toyota Production System” (HBR, Sep-Oct 1999) where, among other things they describe the four rules and four capabilities of the Toyota Production System. The new book presents a series of tests of the theory – example after example of success and failure examined through the lens of the four capabilities.

    I don’t need to belabor it… you all need to read it!



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