Throwback Thursday: HBR on Taylorism vs Toyota


throwback thursday lean blogYou probably saw my blog post and the debate on the recent NEJM article on “Medical Taylorism” that falsely equated “Taylorism” (pressuring people to speed up and telling them how to do their job) with “Toyota Lean” (a very progressive, modern, and engaging management system).

Many of the complaints being directed at Lean or Toyota should really be directed at Taylorism.

Other possible headlines for this post today could have been:

“The Confusion Between Taylor and Toyota”


“Your Hospital's Management System is More Likely like the GM of 1990 than the Toyota of Today.”

In the midst of the discussion about the NEJM article, John Shook of LEI (a former Toyota employee) pointed me to this 1993 HBR article:

Time-and-Motion Regained

I believe it's freely available (or at least it was to me after Googling the title).

The article describes the NUMMI plant, a joint venture between GM and Toyota, that was open from 1984 to 2010 in California. Read my posts about visiting the plant and check out the “This American Life” episode on the plant and why the lessons learned there weren't spread more widely throughout GM.

The discussion at the time reminds me of some of the discussion and debate about Lean in healthcare… a debate that's often fueled by one side not really understanding what Lean or the Toyota Production System are about.

The HBR piece starts with the types of misconceptions we hear from some in healthcare today:

“Standardization is the death of creativity.

Time-and-motion regimentation prevents continuous improvement.

Hierarchy suffocates learning.”

The next paragraph could easily be re-written to be about healthcare today, instead of manufacturing 25 years ago.

“U.S. manufacturing is in the throes of revolution, and assumptions like these are becoming the new conventional wisdom about work. This new gospel sets up Frederick Winslow Taylor and his time-and-motion studies as the villain. It asserts that quality, productivity, and learning depend on management's ability to free workers from the coercive constraints of bureaucracy. It insists that detailed standards, implemented with great discipline in a hierarchical organization, will inevitably alienate employees, poison labor relations, stifle initiative and innovation, and hobble an organization's capacity to change and to learn.”


“But what if, as I believe, this new creed is wrong? What if bureaucracy can actually be designed to encourage innovation and commitment? What if standardization, properly understood and practiced, should prove itself a wellspring of continuous learning and motivation?”

But, the NUMMI plant proved those counterintuitive things. And some healthcare organizations are proving out, today, the standardized work doesn't have to be coercive, inflexible, or permanent. Lean hospitals and clinics (or those that “practice Lean”) create a culture of continuous improvement that doesn't alienate people, as we see in complaints or statements like these on Twitter:

I'm not sure why improving the relationship with the patient wouldn't be the focus of Lean and Kaizen activities. The Kaizen work at Franciscan St. Francis improves patient care and patient relations (see these videos). Any organization that thinks there is a tradeoff between Lean and customer/patient focus doesn't get it.

One doctor said, in a comment on Paul Levy's post:

“And for that matter, many a consultant has misrepresented Lean into meaning that doctors should simply see more patients in less time because thats how it is at the hospital down the road!”

Many a consultant and many a hospital executive, unfortunately. But it's not really Lean. Instead of relying blindly on benchmarks to set staffing levels (which can create a “race to the bottom”), Lean organizations look at their own workloads (and types of patients) and their own systems to determine what pace of work is possible and what staffing levels are required.

What Dr. Lochyna is describing is “bad management,” not Lean. He's basically complaining about “mass production” or Sloan-style management practices.

Toyota doesn't treat people like widgets who “have to produce.” That was the old, bad pre-Lean culture at GM, where management didn't respect employees and put quantity before quality. At GM, the primary goal was to “hit the numbers.” At GM, the mindset was “don't stop the line.”

Toyota puts quality first and emphasizes stopping the line to ensure quality rather than mindlessly plowing ahead to hit your productivity goal no matter what.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 8.39.55 PM

From the article, again:

“In Fremont, California, a GM-Toyota joint venture called New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., NUMMI, for short, has succeeded in employing an innovative form of Taylor's time-and-motion regimentation on the factory floor not only to create world-class productivity and quality but also to increase worker motivation and satisfaction. What's more, NUMMI's intensely Taylorist procedures appear to encourage rather than discourage organizational learning and, therefore, continuous improvement.”

Even though this article says that Toyota's Lean system is, basically, a form of Taylorism, it's a pretty broad leap forward from classic Taylorism (or the Neo-Taylorism practiced today in far too many hospitals).

See my post from a few years ago: “Time & Motion Studies Are Not “Discredited,” Just How They Are Used.”

There's a certain philosophy and mindset in the Toyota Production System that should be present in a real Lean effort. Without the right mindsets, it's L.A.M.E. not Lean.

Taylorism, basically, thought workers were stupid and should just be quiet and do their jobs, as designed by management. Taylorism thought you could break down work into small chunks, so that labor basically became interchangeable.

The Toyota approach realizes that employees have brains and creativity and that they can be partners in improving quality and safety.

“Standardized work also has the overall benefit of giving control of each job to the people who know it best. It empowers the work force. Not surprisingly, NUMMI discovered that workers bought into the process quite readily. As one manager put it, “They understood the technique because it had been done to them for years, and they liked the idea because now they had a chance to do it for themselves.”

Here's another HBR article on this topic: “Don't Set Process Without Input from Frontline Workers.”

Instead of viewing workers as a cost, Toyota views them as an asset to invest in (and they don't lay them off, even in tough times).

“[Toyota] Management sees the no-layoff policy as a critical support for its overall production strategy not only because it reinforces the team culture, but also because it eliminates workers' fear that they are jeopardizing jobs every time they come up with an idea to improve efficiency.”

The HBR article, which I hadn't seen before this writing, makes the same case I make in my blog post:

“Formal work standards developed by industrial engineers and imposed on workers are alienating. But procedures that are designed by the workers themselves in a continuous, successful effort to improve productivity, quality, skills, and understanding can humanize even the most disciplined forms of bureaucracy. Moreover, NUMMI shows that hierarchy can provide support and expertise instead of a mere command structure.”

Many of the complaints about what's being described as “Lean” are really complaints about top-down command-and-control decision making and doctors (or others) being told how to do their work. A truly Lean culture engages doctors so the doctors can figure out how to improve doctor work after being taught Lean concepts and being helped to understand waste and opportunities for improvement. Lean hospitals that I've seen generally focus on using Lean to provide better service to physicians and staff (such as making sure surgeries start on time more often) before trying to engage doctors in improving doctor work… or engaging nurses in improving nurse work.

Again, I'll try to emphasize: It's not Lean to just bully people into hitting higher productivity numbers and it's not Lean to tell them how to do their work.

As opposed to the old “coercive bureaucracy” (which I knew well from my days at GM), NUMMI was:

“In practice, NUMMI's “learning bureaucracy” achieves three ends. First, it serves management by improving overall quality and productivity. Second, it serves workers by involving them in the design and control of their own work, increasing their motivation and job satisfaction, and altering the balance of power between labor and management. Third, it serves the interests of the entire organization–management and the work force–by creating a formal system to encourage learning, to capture and communicate innovation, and to institutionalize continuous improvement.”

It's not Lean if people are being told what to do, rather than being engaged in ongoing continuous improvement that serves everybody well, including the patients.

A NUMMI employee at the time said:

“But it's not like we're just getting squeezed to work harder, because it's the workers who are making the whole thing work–we're the ones that make the standardized work and the kaizen suggestions. We run the plant–and if it's not running right, we stop it.”

If doctors are being squeezed… if they're not involved in improving the work and the systems they are a part of… it's not Lean.

The NUMMI person continues:

“Being consistently busy without being hassled and without being overworked takes a lot of the pain out of the job. You work harder at NUMMI, but I swear it, you go home at the end of the day feeling less tired–and feeling a hell of a lot better about yourself!”

I've seen that in many healthcare settings. People aren't just squeezed to work faster and harder. They have figured out better ways to do the work… ways that are less frustrating for doctors and staff… and better for the patients…

“Doing more with less” is a phrase that draws snarls because, in a Neo-Taylorist mindset, an organization might lay off employees (creating “less”) while then just pressuring the rest to do “more.”

Through the Lean process, I've seen, for example, a hospital lab pretty quickly be able to do 20% more lab testing volume with the same staff. They're “doing more with the same” and, because they've eliminated waste and frustrations, people are happier. They're doing more “value added work” that serves patients. They don't feel like they're working harder. They wouldn't go back to the old way of doing things. That lab might have a few employees quit because they're moving… and maybe they don't get replaced.

That lab is now “doing more with less” but they came about it in a far better way.

Anyway… there's lot of great stuff in the article and I've quoted from it and commented enough. The article is a fantastic summary of Lean management and Lean thinking… as can even be applied to healthcare.

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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 long-standing misunderstanding between Real Lean and Fake Lean, and Real Taylorism and Fake Taylorism (circa 1900-1935), continue to dog the Lean movement in ways that cause harm to people, whether they are workers, patients, customers, or other stakeholder.

    It also harms the Lean movement itself because people don’t bother to understand and correctly practice kaizen, which, at its core, uses basic industrial engineering methods and tools to identify waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness. Notice how the most popular Lean tools in use today, 5S, value stream maps, A3 reports, and gemba walks are peripheral to core IE methods used in kaizen.

    The unfavorable results that you describe above are, in part, the result of thinking (years ago) that Lean would be perceived differently than Taylorism, or that enough time had passed since Taylor so that it would not be problem. Clearly, incorrect application of Taylor’s ideas and practices, and the ensuing harm done to people, remain firmly rooted in people minds across all industries (and even across nationalities) to this day.

    As I have long said, there is no Lean without kaizen. For Lean to survive and prosper, this basic misunderstanding must be corrected. Is there still time to do this? Maybe yes, maybe no; it’s hard to say.

    • Thanks, Bob. I do recommend that everybody read your post titled “No Lean Without Kaizen.

      I’ve heard people at hospitals literally say things like, “We’ve been implementing Lean for five years and now we’re starting to focus on continuous improvement.”

      Better later than never, I guess. But they shouldn’t have described what they were doing as “Lean” without daily Kaizen being practiced – as Imai says, everybody, everywhere, every day improvement.

      They were using Lean tools, as you have listed them above. They were doing projects that had some benefit. But, they weren’t really being “Lean” in terms of having any sort of culture change or change in management approach.

      Toyota and the TSSC group explain TPS really well:

      It’s an integrated system. You can’t just cherry pick pieces of it. You need not just the tools, but the philosophy and the management system.

      New tools + old culture = a lot of frustration and harm for everybody involved in healthcare.

      I saw that at GM… and I see it at hospitals today.

      The bad management that I complained about at GM is very much the same bad management we see in hospitals. Lean is the alternative to that bad management system.

  2. I also feel that people are so used to bad management, so resigned to its existence, that they cannot even dream of good management. They think it is impossible. Plus, they have no leverage to demand better management. So they have given up. That is sad. And it is also sad that the Lean community has largely failed (with some exceptions) to correct that deep dissatisfaction in management thinking and practice.

    • Dr. Deming said that prevailing management styles were “a prison created by the way in which people interact.”

      People created the “prison,” so we can create something different.

      The old GM management model in a nutshell, including mindsets such as:

      1) Make the numbers… quantity over quality
      2) Workers are lazy, careless, or stupid… the problems are their fault
      3) Degrees from certain schools are valued over practical experience
      4) Win/lose situations are OK (management wins / workers lose or GM wins / suppliers lose)
      5) If people are making the numbers, yell at them until they do… blame them
      6) Rank people based on individual performance
      7) “Getting things done” and fire fighting is more valuable than improving systems
      8) Run the business by the numbers – spreadsheets, budgets, and cold hard logic rule
      9) Do what it takes to hit the numbers this month / quarter / year – the long-term be damned
      10) Productivity comes from pressuring people to work faster or try harder

      Etc. etc.

      Hospitals have many of these dysfunctions, before or without Lean.

      When Lean tools are added to those dysfunctions, we don’t make progress. But, Lean can’t be blamed for those dysfunctions then. Those dysfunctions were already there… and maybe amplified by Fake Lean or L.A.M.E.

  3. Mark: excellent handling of this NEJM article.

    Someone sent it to me last night. After I read it, I felt disappointed at the authors’ handling of Toyota-inspired lean thinking. I teach a history of ops management course where I handle Taylorism as the force that tipped the human and operational scale into the Human Relations movement. That movement set the stage for the 1980s “discovery” of Dr. Deming and a movement based in his thinking that, honestly, I think “lean” and Toyota are still riding the wave of.

    To equivocate the Taylorism found in The Principles of Scientific Management to Toyota of today or lean thinking, is ridiculous.

    Taylor’s misguided human system thinking is well-documented in Principles:

    “In our scheme, we do not ask the initiative of our men. We do not want any initiative. All we want of them is to obey the orders we give them, do what we say, and do it quick.”


    “Therefore, the workman who is best suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work. He is so stupid that the word “percentage” has no meaning to him…”

    As opposed to this quote attributed to Ohno:

    “Standardized work was never intended by Toyota to be a management tool to be coercively applied on the work force.”

    It is extremely disappointing to see this kind of academically weak writing in such a prestigious journal.

    If you – and Bob – would like to mount a rebuttal, let me know: I’m happy to chime in. Thank goodness for Deming’s influence on our current operations management improvement mindsets.


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