Toyota article from 1997 – the “Soul” of TPS that’s hard to copy


How Toyota Defies Gravity

In doing some research for an upcoming presentation, I found this FORTUNE article from 1997. I was looking for a reference to Toyota letting its competitors (yes, Ford, GM, and Chrysler) tour its factories.

Why would they do this? Because what you can see with your eyes (tools and artifacts of Lean) is NOT the important stuff, the “secret sauce” if you will:

Two days a month, more than 50 automotive executives and engineers travel to a sprawling manufacturing complex in Georgetown, Ky., to learn how Toyota makes cars. The tours, which include an intensive question-and-answer session, last five hours and are booked months in advance. Although the visitors all work for competing automakers, Toyota charges them no money and places nothing off limits. Lately Ford and Chrysler technicians have been regular visitors to one of the two assembly lines, while General Motors personnel have demonstrated a particular interest in the powertrain operations.

Toyota's showing the opposition how it makes cars is a bit like Coke's giving Pepsi a peek at its secret syrup formula. The Toyota Production System on display at Georgetown applies not just to manufacturing but also to almost everything Toyota does, from product development to supplier relations and distribution. But Toyota officials don't mind. Deep down, they know that the TPS techniques that visitors see on their tours–the kanban cards, andon cords, and quality circles–represent the surface of TPS but not its soul. Toyota isn't worried about giving away any important secrets on a plant tour.

The same idea holds true for hospitals looking to apply TPS and Lean. The key is not copying tools, like 5S, but rather copying the general principles and management philosophies.

Even in 1997, Lean was “old hat” to many, yesterday's news. What the latest and greatest fad to jump on?? Will we reach that point with Lean in healthcare?

From the article:

Anyone want to read more about Japanese management techniques? I thought not. Last year's management fads are about as appetizing as yesterday's sushi, and ideas such as just-in-time inventory and continuous improvement feel shopworn, to say the least.

Continuous improvement is “shopworn?” In 1997? That's the problem — the small improvements, the discipline to practice kaizen each and every day… that's boring… the basic blocking and tackling of making sure checklists are used and truly followed each and every day… also boring? It shouldn't be. Or at least it shouldn't be ignored because it's “boring” to those who are only interested in the exotic cases or the next great technological leap.

I visited a hospital recently where they were excited about the latest innovation in the use of their expensive surgical robot. That's great innovation — but is that sort of innovation enough? The hospital leaders also talked about how they had “no standardized work for anything” generally around the hospital.

They were realizing that the basic blocking and tackling is important. Fancy technology can save lives, but so can processes, standardized work, and disciplined daily management. Maybe healthcare can focus in both areas – technological innovation AND process innovation?

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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. The question you raise is critically important. “Boring” is a very relative and personal term, yet it is at the heart of the issue. The questions I would ask are: Is “blocking and tackling” boring to everyone? Is it always boring or can you find instances where people have become enthusiastic about improving and maintaining “blocking and tackling”? If you interview those people and asked them what motivated them what would they tell you? How did it get started? And what motivated them to keep it up and improve it over time? Behind the answers I find very passionate people who have repeatedly created enthusiasm around improvement. They talk about the lessons they have learned and the process, methods and tactics they use. And it is never just one person, it is always a team, with members quick to point out the important role other team members played in making it happen.

  2. The idea of standard work being boring is akin to why should professional football players practice. After all, they already know how to play football… Yet, they spend all week practicing for the game on Sunday.

    It is when we learn to look at work as practice – always able to stop, learn, and improve – instead of looking at it as if we are under pressure – always playing the Sunday game – then you will be able to generate the enthusiasm for process improvement. Eliminate the fear and improvement can happen.

  3. I like what Chris said. Pressure, stress and fear definitely block enthusiasm. Those are primary problems when they are present and they must be addressed.
    The concept of standard work as "practice", with each "practice" offering the chance for honing skills and for learning to improve, is excellent. That seems like a healthy attitude that would prevent a person from seeing "blocking and tackling" as boring. Beyond eliminating fear, how do instill that attiude?

  4. Great blog, I couldn't agree more.

    Why is there not more attention in books, articles and summits covering how organizations develop by being inspired by the principles (instead of success stories on applied methods)?

    Is it the quick-fix trap we keep falling into?


  5. Something that I think was implied by the article, but not stated directly, was that Toyota, knowing its competitors don't have the discipline or the "soul" of lean, feels there is no way their competitors can catch up to them, at least not within the Lean paradigm.

    In sports, this would be akin to a taunt. I wonder if any of our top automotive mfg. execs have ever used this as motivation…

    Although I work in healthcare with Lean, I have used this to motivate some teams that get lethargic, say Lean doesn't work, etc. I actually enjoy telling them that they are doing EXACTLY as the Toyota people predicted. They (Toyota) say, "You don't have the discipline, the willpower, the guts to see this through." So I'll ask them, "Do you?"

    This isn't just a ploy. I want them to succeed, and if I can get them to feel that sense of indignation to motivate and challenge them, then we've succeeded to get them on the road to improvement, hopefully.


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