Saturday’s post of Toyota Questions Kaizen, which commented on the As Rivals Catch Up, Toyota CEO Spurs Big Efficiency Drive article in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, generated a lot of traffic and emails from readers asking if Toyota was really questioning lean manufacturing itself. The answer is:
"Yes, of course."
But not for the reason that lean skeptics would like to hear. There is nothing that a traditional gutless executive would like to hear more than Toyota realizing that lean has run its course. For that would give him an excuse to fall back on the tired old traditional management theories that have eliminated so many knowledge workers, aptly managed so many short-term objectives tied to so many incorrect (but GAAP compliant…!) financial assumptions, and thereby destroyed so many potentially great companies.
Unfortunately that is what a lot of traditional Wall Street Journal readers thought when they read the article. Many of us in the real lean world didn’t even grasp this potential misunderstanding until we talked to people struggling with a fundamental understanding of the concept itself.
Real lean means to focus on an entire culture of continuous improvement, not just the tools. Real lean means respecting and valuing people, not getting rid of them as soon as some of the lean tools create a minor improvement in efficiency. There are plenty of companies and executives that don’t have the guts to implement real lean.
Of course Toyota is questioning kaizen, one of the core underpinnings of their Toyota Production System. Just like they question every single aspect of their business, all the time. There is no resting and no plateau. There is always a fear of danger, that they are vulnerable. Charles Fishman does a great job of showing us that mentality in the latest Fast Company magazine with an article titled No Satisfaction at Toyota, which we commented on in A Presumption of Imperfection.
Toyota’s competitiveness is quiet, internal, self-critical. It is rooted in an institutional obsession with improvement that Toyota manages to instill in each one of its workers, a pervasive lack of complacency with whatever was accomplished yesterday.
At Toyota there is a presumption of imperfection. No one at Toyota Georgetown can talk about his work without explaining how it has just changed, or is about to change.
Constant re-thinking, continual improvement, relentless striving for increased efficiencies and reduced waste — that’s EXACTLY what Lean is all about. As long as US companies and the US media continue to think of lean production as simply a matter of eliminating muda, or enabling workers to switch between different tasks, efforts to catch up to Toyota will come to naught. People need to understand Lean as an entire system, predicated upon respect and empowerment of the individual, that leads to increased efficiencies.
Lean is built on two pillars: continuous improvement and respect for people. Continuous improvement is a focus on every aspect of the business, all the time. Even the most fundamental components. Respect for people is often forgotten, and sometimes many of us need to be reminded how important it is.