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The Limits of Imitating Toyota


I recently received an email from a guy challenging the legitimacy of organizing into value streams and lean accounting.  The linchpin of his argument:  "I can't find anything saying Toyota has done any of that".  This seems to be a fairly common view - something of a Toyota acid test for all things lean.  Of course, at the same time the most common arguement offered up in resistance to lean is, "We're different - we aren't like Toyota."

Seems to me if we want to get all Toyota-y about things we have to take Shingo's words to heart when he wrote, "We have to grasp not only the Know-How but also Know-Why."

Most plants are very much unlike Toyota plants, because making cars has some very unique characteristics - like one value stream per plant.  That's the nature of the auto industry.  It's tough enough to make one type of car, let alone making a bunch of them.  When the auto companies make more than one model under one roof, even Toyota can only do it when the cars are very similar.  They don't make full size pick-ups and small sedans on th same lines, or even in the same plant.

Most manufacturers make something with a lot fewer parts than cars; and they make more than one product type - hence the need for value streams.  An auto plant basically has one big value stream map, and all of the costs in the plant are incurred somewhere along that map.  Most plants - with multiple value streams - have a trickier challenge with costs:  To figure out which value streams go with which costs.

In fact, there are a lot of things that are easier in a Toyota plant than in most plants - kanbans, for instance, and heijunka.  When everything in the plant is flowing to one place - one assembly point - these tools are a whole lot simpler than when they can flow to multiple points with differing demand volumes and rates of demand variability.  Doesn't mean the underlying principles don't apply - Shingo's "Know Why" - but it does mean the math and application techniques have to be different.

I wouldn't dream of taking anything away from Toyota.  Making cars is tough, and their conjuring up the principles of lean changed the world.  That said, however, using Toyota as the acid test for whether something is lean or not is rather naive and intellectually lazy.

In most companies and most plants, asking 'what would Toyota do?' is the appropriate question - not 'what did Toyota do?'  And when you head down that path, you inevitably get to things like value stream organizational structures, lean accounting and a whole lot of other managerial and shop floor techniques that you won't find in a Toyota plant.

Originally posted at: http://www.idatix.com/the-limits-of-imitating-toyota/

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3 Responses to "The Limits of Imitating Toyota"

  • Robert Drescher
    18 January 2013 - 8:12 am

    Hi Bill
    You are right we are not all Toyota, but we all need to know why we should do things take VSMs.
    Let’s remember though Toyota has done a great job, they themselves admit they are far from perfect yet. In fact there are a lot of companies a lot farther along the Lean journey than Toyota is, size also creates some disadvantages in getting Lean.
    A VSM is information in an easy to use format to help identify improvements, Toyota’s engineers and line management know all of that in greater detail, they just never bother with drawing a map. But like you said they have a more focussed single process line to deal with, something few other organizations have.
    Toyota pushes its supplier to use VSMs in order to help them improve their process, so in all likelihood it could just be that for Toyota they have found a way to achieve what a VSM does without actually creating it. If you have enough experience and track the right data about your process, you can actually know your current state without ever drawing the map. And with their experience and understanding of their process they can easily draw from that data what areas they need to focus on to gain the improvements they are looking for. If we are honest with ourselves how many organizations can honestly say they have that ability?
    VSM is a tool that can help an organization that is having a hard time finding improvements to work on, if you could find improvements without first drawing one that would show me that the organization is in fact very poorly run to begin with. If improvement opportunities are that obvious why haven’t you already fixed the issues?
    You draw a VSM to help you see opportunities and problems, if you had a system that could supply all that info without the map and had the ability and experience to interpret that data without the map you really do not need it, but that is a rare case.

  • John Hunter
    18 January 2013 - 5:47 pm

    The failure to think systemically makes many attempt to learn from others into failures. People often try to copy practices and pieces of a process without understanding the critical elements that make the practice successful is how it fits within the system.
    There are great things to learn from Toyota. Attempting to copy what they are doing, or not doing, is a fast path down the tubes. You need to learn what others do (Toyota and others) and then determine how those ideas might be useful in your organization.

  • Craig McComb
    23 January 2013 - 8:14 pm

    Would not the key be an understanding and relationship to a given challenge and how one might adopt and adapt a given method and practice?