Beyond Mistakes: Uncovering Toyota’s Approach to Success Through Learning


This post is built around excerpts from the book The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. Read more about Toyota, including stories and key lessons learned in the book.

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Today, we explore the transformative power of embracing failure, inspired by Toyota's pioneering culture of continuous learning. In this post, we delve into key insights from “The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation,” showcasing how Toyota's unique approach to mistakes and problem-solving has propelled them to global leadership. Join us as we uncover the secrets behind turning setbacks into stepping stones for success, learning valuable lessons from one of the world's most successful automakers.

I've been a student of “Lean Management,” based on the famed Toyota Production System, applying those methods and mindsets in settings including manufacturing, healthcare, and software organizations. Toyota has long cultivated a culture of preventing mistakes and learning from them. You'll read stories in the book from Toyota people who have kept that culture alive and growing. Toyota's not perfect, but they offer us much to love and learn.

Isao Yoshino, who retired after 40 years in leadership roles at Toyota, the world's largest automaker, says, “The only secret to Toyota is its attitude toward learning. We don't even notice and take it for granted.”

According to Yoshino, Toyota has a culture of patiently:

“reflecting, learning, adjusting, and continuing to try until they succeed. They are willing to experiment and embrace failure and bad news as possible sources of learning.”

I've worked with many people who don't like the word “problem” because it seems negative. Some people feel the same way about the word “mistake.” But with the right kind of leadership, we can turn the negative into a positive. Instead of sugarcoating the situation by choosing softer words, we can lean into problems and mistakes–recognizing that the problems exist whether we like admitting them or not.

Toyota people often say,

“No problems is a problem.”

Having no problems is a problem because it means you don't understand your business or are not admitting the truth. Toyota leaders realize that they must make it psychologically safe enough for people to reveal problems and mistakes, and they work hard to cultivate that culture.

Toyota leaders do this by visiting a site and asking questions like, “What are your top three problems right now?” They're asking about priorities, but that question assumes problems exist, which permits others to acknowledge and discuss them. In other workplaces, asking a closed-ended question such as “Do you have any problems right now?” might lead to a quick “No” response, especially if leaders haven't proven they can react constructively when somebody answers “Yes.”

When driving their first American import model, the 1955 Toyopet Crown, Shoichiro Toyoda recalled it was “dangerous to enter a highway on an uphill slope.” He admitted the Crown had poor acceleration and was chagrined to realize that Toyota had exported cars to America without performing enough driving tests. He said, “After reflecting on it, we decided to give up export for the time being.”

Toyota's first minivan, the 1991 Previa, was a flop for reasons including the presence of only two cup holders, which was not nearly enough to please American buyers. Instead of giving up, Toyota learned, adjusted, and improved. Its second-generation minivan, the Sienna, had fourteen cup holders. Toyota continued iterating (and adding four more cup holders) and, by 2019, had surpassed Honda as the top-selling minivan in the United States.

Toyota's management system and culture helped it become the world's largest automaker, setting a new standard for quality and productivity that drove other global automakers to eventually try copying their practices. Non-automotive manufacturers learned from and emulated Toyota, and their influence extended to companies in healthcare, software, and different service settings.

I'm not saying Toyota is perfect. No company or person is. I would cringe if a leader somewhere in that vast company chastised a team member for making a mistake today. Punishment should be the exception at Toyota, based on the company's stated values and practices. But, sadly, it's the norm in most workplaces.

Toyota employees have learned to expect a constructive and non-punitive reaction when they make or admit a mistake. If the actual response is ever some form of punishment, that would be a surprise and a problem–a gap and a mistake. I've heard enough stories from former Toyota employees that reinforce the perception of a common and consistent culture that Toyota has cultivated across continents and decades.

As recounted in her book (and my podcast), her mentor and subject of her book Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn, Isao Yoshino, made many mistakes throughout his career. You'll read a mistake from the first year of his career in Chapter Five, which his first manager reacted to by saying,

“Don't worry. Mistakes can happen. You are just a beginner, and you did your best.”

Toward the end of his 40-year tenure, Yoshino led a startup boat business that failed and lost $13 million for Toyota. Bookending Yoshino's career, then-Chairman Fujio Cho told him,

“You were new to the boat business. And so were we at headquarters. We all make mistakes, particularly when we try something totally new. We know you took on a challenge and worked so hard to make it happen.”

They reacted constructively…

In conclusion, Toyota's journey teaches us that embracing mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning is a powerful catalyst for innovation and success. This approach, highlighted in “The Mistakes That Make Us,” serves as a beacon for individuals and organizations striving for excellence. By adopting a mindset that welcomes challenges and learns from failures, we can foster a culture of resilience and continuous improvement, paving our own paths to triumph in our personal and professional lives.

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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.


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