The New York Times published an article last week on how Toyota is teaching the Toyota Way to a new generation of foreign managers, in an effort to avoid diluting their corporate culture as they expand. Mark Graban over at the Lean Blog has commented on it already, as has Jon Miller over at Gemba Panta Rei. But with Kevin busy assessing the latest news on Toyota through the bottom of a margarita glass, it falls to me to keep the blog up-to-date(ish).
What struck me as odd was the author’s comment that
It used to be enough for the culture to be transmitted by word of mouth
among Toyota’s Japanese employees, on factory floors and around
cafeteria tables. But Toyota outgrew these informal teaching methods
and created the institute, which is so secretive the company would not
allow a reporter to visit it, let alone sit in on any classes.
Now, Toyota already teaches companies — including their competitors — about the Toyota Way. Moreover, they cooperated with Jeffrey Liker on his book, The Toyota Way. So what course material could possibly be so proprietary, so secret, that the company has to bar reporters? The basic techniques at the heart of the Toyota Way are already well known. For any company — even Toyota itself — the real key to success comes from the inculcation of these values into its employees, and from teaching workers how to apply the principles to their work.
My guess (and of course, this is simply speculation) is that there aren’t any "secrets." Barring outsiders is simply a way to keep control over the classroom environment. And a controlled classroom environment is the best way to ensure accurate transmission of the culture to new employees.
Just as every activity and every change on a production line is a carefully controlled experiment, so too is the activity in the Institute’s classrooms. Allowing outsiders into the classroom adds an extra variable into the teaching and learning process, which makes it impossible to tell which lessons are effective and which aren’t. Talk to any teacher in a US school, and they’ll say the same thing: the presence of outside observers changes the classroom dynamic in significant (if unquantifiable) ways.
Replicating the company’s DNA and implanting it in new employees worldwide is essential to Toyota’s survival. Management recognizes that it’s a delicate and difficult task, and must be done with the utmost care. From this perspective, the Institute isn’t really secretive. Rather, in this process of DNA transmission, as with all of its manufacturing processes, Toyota is simply applying the Toyota Way. And who would expect less?