Ten (Mostly) Common Misconceptions About Toyota & Lean


Ten Common Misconceptions About Toyota | Quality Digest

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:

  1. Understanding the current condition.
  2. Developing and defining a target condition.
  3. 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.

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.

As he mentioned in Anderson's intro, I really love the whole “Toyota _________” series, along with Spear's book, and I'm just starting Toyota Kata from Mike Rother.

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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. Toyota brings out the best, and some say the only, qualities of a modern IT implementation: a glorified filing cabinet system.

    The wetware still makes the decision, regardless of how many Larry Eillisons one throws at the problem. (My apologies to Fred Brooks for robbing his line.)

  2. There are some worthwhile aspects of that article, so thanks for sharing, Mark.

    In his intro, he said something like how he didn't intend his article to supplant the work of Liker and Spear… wow, was he really afraid of that? That struck me as sort of an arrogant tone to start a piece with. Who is this guy anyway?

  3. Neutron Jerk, glad to see you back! Since I formerly worked for a company that was run by his "offspring" your moniker alone speaks volumes to me.

    Mark, interesting post, and the point about Toyota using only technology that serves their customers/people/processes instead of having "monuments to technology" (immovable, inflexible, etc.) rings true with all I've learned. I've been told at Toyota at one time that to tell their production crew what models they were imminently going to make, a colored ball would roll down a chute. This was their "scheduling." I'm sure it's different now and they do what serves their purposes – highly technical or not – but the point remains – does this technology serve enhance our process? Where I work we seem to think technology is most always the answer. We still need to get to the point of "does this technology serve our processes to deliver value to our patients or are we subserviant to the technology."

  4. Good post / article.
    I have found misconception #1 (knowledge of muda but not muri and mura) to be pretty common. Looking at it another way though, aren't muri and mura just causes (not root cause but items in the causal chain) of muda and 'problems.' That is the way that I began to look at them after finding them in the wild (I don't know – comments would be appreciated on that.) Kind of like I think that the 8th waste of intellect is really not a waste but a cause of the 7 classical ones. The difference is largely academic in practice but an interesting philosphical point.
    I question Misconception #5. I haven't run into two many people who think that Toyota is run by a 'powerful IT system'.
    I would suggest an 11th misconception. I have run into a fair number of people who have done light reading about Toyota and TPS who have read autoNOmation (jidoka)as automation. I think this these are typically people who have read an article or two and walk away thinking that Toyota hedges on a lot of robots. Kindo of sad that something close to being diametrically opposed is probably true. The whole point is to mantain the'human touch' or intelligence and to reduce the capital load on the financials. Has anybody else run into this misconception about one of the TPS pillars being automation?

  5. Thanks for sharing this Mark. As the author debunks these common misconceptions about Toyota he offers a definition of a Lean Enterprise. One in which defines Toyota.


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