Guest Post: Is TPS the “Best” System?


In this LinkedIn Group discussion, a member posted this question:

“In the book TPS Taiichi Ohno gives in chapter 5 praises to Henry Ford. He refers to Henry Ford his book Today and Tomorrow, written in 1926. Henry Ford was at his peak in 1926. In the following years, as Taiichi Ohno written, Ford faced failure and discouragement.

Now Toyota at their peak have the slogan “Today Tomorrow Toyota”.

Why? Is it now proven in this recession that TPS is the best way of manufacturing?”

I felt compelled to reply. First of all, let's be clear that TPS is not actually the “best way” of manufacturing. TPS is very difficult and is intended to show problems. If the other aspects such as support and ability to solve problems are not in place, the TPS process (flow) would be a disaster. It is often a disaster by comparison to traditional manufacturing methods- at least in the short term.

It is very, very difficult to make a direct comparison because the values, principles, and strategies BEHIND the actual tactical method (the production itself) are quite different from other companies. These are the things that provide a direction and intent. It is necessary to consider both long-term and short-term objectives in the comparison.

As an example if you do a Google search on “efficient US auto plants” you will soon find interesting information about the most “efficient” auto plant closures. In fact a few years ago 5 of the top 10 most efficient plants CLOSED! You will not see Toyota plants at the top of the list for efficiency, because efficiency as measured is simply a short-term purpose. Toyota is more concerned with process flexibility for the long-term. Efficiency is important, but it is not the PRIMARY purpose.

Anyone can argue that what Toyota does in total is “effective” which is not to say that everything they do is “better.” We can say effective because what Toyota does is intentional and meets their desired objectives overall. The primary one being to create a strong company for continued success regardless of conditions (such as recession). And for Toyota there is no separation between company and employees, so it is not something for the betterment of the company at the expense of people.

So is it “better”? That can be debated forever. One thing I can say is that Toyota leaders have a great respect for Henry Ford and what he accomplished. That does not mean that they agree with everything Mr. Ford did!

One final note that I might read into your comment. Several people have asked, “If TPS is so good why did Toyota lose money in the recession?” and it is a fair question, but shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Toyota's production strategy. The principle of Heijunka suggests balancing the production process and there is therefore a limit to the amount of customer demand variation that the system is DESIGNED to handle. Depending on the plant and situation it is roughly +- 10% so a drop in demand of 30% would be beyond the design capability of the system. Keep in mind that every system has limitations and there is no production process that is free of some constraints. The primary difference between Toyota and others is that this is within Toyota's strategic intent. It is deliberate and intentional and serves a greater overall purpose.

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David Meier
David Meier is the founder and president of Lean Associates, Inc., and is the co-author with Jeffrey Liker of the best-selling books, The Toyota Way Fieldbook and Toyota Talent: Developing Your People the Toyota Way. David learned the Toyota Production System as one of the first leaders hired at Toyota’s Georgetown, KY, facility where he worked in the plastic molding department. Over a 10-year period in Kentucky and Japan, he received training and mentoring in TPS principles including full-time coaching by TPS experts. As a trainer and speaker on how to launch and sustain lean transformations, David has worked in North America, Russia, Europe, Brazil, and Asia for a variety of service and manufacturing industries, including healthcare, food processing, automotive, aerospace, wood and plastic products, chemical processing, metal machining, fabricating, welding, and assembly operations. He currently helps companies implement lean principles through Lean Associates, Inc.


  1. I do not believe that any of the lean or TPS gurus understand why Toyota is so successful. TPS was formulated out of necessity. It was do or die for Toyota. It was the reason why TPS was so effective. Additionally they had a visionary – Ohno.This is also main reason why TPS / lean fails. If there is no need or urgency, TPS will NOT work. To reiterate, clarity of purpose is a necessity for TPS implementation.Lean is NOT TPS. Your post reminds me of the famous quote, with my paraphrasing"This is the best lean facility outside Toyota city." Sadly this quote was repeated twice, once for Delphi in US and once again in India (recently).-Harish

  2. What a great Blog. Over many years on this earth I have come to realise some people are obsessed with finding the one best way to do a task or solve a problem. It must be realised that there is no such Holy Grail.I am confident if you do your own research you will find Henry Ford was a system thinker, and how particularly he built plants around natural resources. This did indeed have an influence on the Japanese, and in particular Toyota.I do think that what Toyota have is also very special in designing against demand, and the efficient measurement of other auto manufactures tend to just look one part of the system and not as a whole, which can be very misleading, and maybe why so many end up closing.For someone coming to lean for the first time, studying TPS opens your eyes! However for the west it’s not that easy to grasp, for Japanese quality and perfection is firmly nested in their cultural history, which undoubtedly helps them.Stuart

  3. @HarishToyota is successful because they believe in pull not push, designing for demand needs less resources and less waste.I can’t comment on why TPS fails, because I haven’t actually seen one properly administered and implemented TPS facility actually fail.

  4. I look at TPS and wonder why people try to duplicate it. You have your own culture and using TPS and Lean as a guide you build your own system. I think many times that is why implementing the TPS System fails. When they work, you have taken ownership and it is not called TPS. It is yours.

  5. In general agreement. However, I would like all the folks that used to have Toyota's #1 Global market capitalization as the reason to pursue TPS issue a statement as to why we shouldn't now be following the Exxon Management System for same reason.

  6. It seems to me that one of the biggest hurdles for those of us in the West to overcome is focusing on the system and forgetting the people. As has been stated many times before, Toyota focuses on people as much as any other part of their system. Joe's statement above is very true. Maybe we can use TPS as a guide but as we get our people involved and help them understand the necessity of continuous improvement, then TPS evolves into our own system and our people make the necessary changes which transforms the company culture.


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