Lean versus the Toyota Production System

Is there a difference between Lean and the Toyota Production System (TPS)? This is a recurring question. The short answer is yes, but, when you look deeper, it is an issue of packaging as well as of substance.

If you are working in a car company, you cannot openly say that you are using Toyota‘s production system. How could you borrow such things from a competitor, especially if you have been in the business 50 years longer? It is embarrassing to employees, and a weak marketing message. So, regardless of how much you actually use from TPS, you must call it your own “Production Way” or “Operating System,” or…

It is even worse if you are not in car manufacturing. If you maintain aircraft for an airline, applying tools from car production will not appear to make any sense. And, likewise, patients in a hospital may not take kindly to the idea that they are treated like cars on an assembly line.
Company-specific names serve a purpose, but we also need a generic name around which to organize literature, public training, professional conferences, blogs, etc. Several were tried in the early 1980s, such as Just-In-Time, Demand Flow Technology, or World Class Manufacturing, but John Krafcik’s Lean Production, introduced in the late 1980s by the book The Machine that Changed the World, swept all aside and, to my astonishment, is still current after more than 20 years.

A generic name like Lean clearly has many practical advantages over TPS. This being said, the minute Lean branched out from Toyota, divergence was to be expected. Major tools of Lean, like Value-Stream Mapping or Kaizen Events are either minor or non-existent in TPS, while the jidoka column of TPS is largely ignored or misunderstood in Lean. See Art Smalley’s presentation at the 2006 Shingo Prize conference, or Working with Machines. The combination of Lean with Six Sigma is also popular in the US, even though Toyota evaluated and passed on Six Sigma.

The umbilical cord, however, was never broken, and the promoters of Lean still use Toyota as a reference. Clearly, nobody would be interested in Lean if it weren’t backed up by the Toyota story, and this raises the question of how far Lean can drift from TPS and still retain this vital link.

The following two comments in the Leadership and Lean The Top 5% discussion group on LinkedIn, highlight the issues. This is what Allison Corabatir has to say, based on her experience at Magna:

There is a lot in a name…. When one says they are implementing TPS, it usually means they are taking a cookie cutter approach and assuming what worked well for Toyota would work well for them too. Obviously, there is no denying that their tools are great and we should learn from Toyota, but in reality, some of the tools need to be tailored to the culture and operation of the company we are working for. […] some tools like VSM does not get enough attention with TPS ( I am a big fan of VSM) and some approaches are totally missing (We put a lot of importance to employee recognisition and rewards). I prefer using the term “lean” and making the system our own.

Who would argue with that?  Anna Johnson,  on the other hand, describes a very different experience:

My experience with TPS has been that there is a greater emphasis on retention, and lowering of costs through collaboration and teamwork and attrition, whereas while lean equally emphasizes cost cutting, headcount reduction seems more acceptable through RIFs…

When Anna says that Lean “emphasizes cost cutting, headcount reduction,” she describes a 180-degrees turn away from TPS. This version of “Lean” isn’t just a watering down but a betrayal. It is taking the approach with which financial managers have hurt US Manufacturing from the 50s to the 70s, and calling it Lean to mislead audiences into believing that it is Toyota’s approach.

Anybody can slap the Lean label on anything, and it is only a matter of time until this free-for-all makes it worthless. It results in implementations that are best described as L.A.M.E. (Lean As Mistakenly Excecuted) or L.I.N.O (Lean In Name Only). To avoid this, you have to start from the underlying principles of TPS and deploy them in an context-appropriate fashion, but it is easier said than done, because Toyota didn’t do a great job of articulating these principles and we have to reverse-engineer them from TPS.

Lists of principles can be long, abstract, vague and toothless like the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or short, specific, and actionable, like the US Bill of Rights. In The Toyota Way, Jeffrey Liker spells out specific and actionable principles, but there are 14 of them, which is too many to remember. The Lean Enterprise Institute has 5 principles,  easier to remember but focused exclusively on the flow of materials. They say nothing, for example about human resources. You could claim to follow these principles while practicing yo-yo staffing, hiring massively in boom times and laying off in recessions.

The HBR article on Lean Knowledge Work summarizes Lean principles as follows:

  1. Relentless attention to detail
  2. Commitment to data-driven experimentation
  3. Charging workers with the ongoing task of increasing efficiency and eliminating waste in their jobs.
This is short and specific, and covers ground that the LEI list omits, but it includes no mention of flow.
Following is my own, manufacturing-centric list:
  1. Focus on people are the main driver of performance.
  2. Look for profits in the details of shop floor operations.
  3. All manufacturing is repetitive at some level, even where it doesn’t appear to be.
  4. Make materials, information, and people flow.
  5. Make it easy to do what you do often.
  6. Improve, don’t optimize. Optimization comes to a full stop; improvements never end.

There are good reasons to use the word Lean rather than TPS to designate what we do. Lean evolves in many different directions as it inspires people in different industries to pursue improvement in ways that work in their context, and it is healthy that they should do so. But there will always be bandwagon jumpers just using the label to sell products or services.

20 comments on “Lean versus the Toyota Production System

  1. Comment in the PEX Network & IQPC – Lean Six Sigma & Process Excellence for Continuous Improvement on LinkedIn:

    I’m not a fan of the TPS. It worked for Toyota in Japan at the time it was put in place. It does not work in all industries and for all companies.
    The form of Lean the was developed in the U.S. is a more robust application of the principles of Lean. If you read the literature the founder of TPS followed the teachings of Henry Ford and then applied them to Toyota,
    The addition of Lean to the systematic problem solving breakthrough of Six Sigma (Lean six Sigma) is the prevalent methodology for continuous improvement in industry today. People who like the “Lean” buzz terms really do rely on the six sigma methodology and actually improperly use some of the tools from the six sigma toolkit.

    So TPS evolved out of Henry Ford’s Lean training and Lean Six Sigma evolved out of the out dated TPS of the 80’s. I think Toyota would have appreciated six sigma with their most recent recalls and quality escapes.

    • You wrote: “…It [TPS] worked for Toyota in Japan at the time it was put in place…” This implies that TPS is a finished thing that was put in place once. It really is a work in progress that keeps evolving. As outsiders to Toyota, we don’t have access to the latest.

      You wrote: “…The form of Lean the was developed in the U.S. is a more robust application of the principles of Lean…” I don’t see it. What do you base this on?

      When I read what Ohno wrote about Ford, the problem the Toyota people struggled with was how, as a tiny company in the early 1950s, they could compete with giants like Ford. And the answer was certainly not by applying Ford’s mass production system.

      In foreign markets, false modesty can be good PR. If I were sitting in Toyota’s PR department, I wouldn’t mind attributing Lean to Eli Whitney if it defused tension and helped gain market share.

  2. The only way I have been able to make TPS and Lean sensical is to take on the perspective that the Toyota Production System is a SYSTEM that Toyota defines for managing their business. Lean on the other hand is a SCIENCE. I might classify it as the science of sustainable business. So the Toyota Production System is simply the foremost case study and working experiment in the field. It is not the science itself.

    Unfortunately, Lean is a very new science. Like the science of medicine 100+ years ago, it does not have governing bodies or academia to vet new theories, principles, or laws. The current system for building and organizing knowledge on the subject of lean is almost completely open source. To some degree this is good because it should invite experimentation. On the other hand, there is no way to prove theories other than a Darwinian idea that good ideas survive and bad ideas don’t.

  3. Comment in the Lean manufacturing & Kaizen discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Everything about Lean is a direct discendant of the practices and concepts of the Toyota Production System, regardless of what one chooses to call it. TPS set the standard for the elimination of batch production, vastly reduced inventory levels, shorten lead times, involving operators in the improvement process, striving for error free production, reducing setup and changeover, etc. While a number of new tools have been introduced under the umbrella of “Lean” – such as Six Sigma and Value Stream Mapping – the same basic goals and principles of TPS apply.

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  5. Comment in the PEX Network & IQPC – Lean Six Sigma & Process Excellence for Continuous Improvement on LinkedIn:
    I agree Ron, well said

    There are cultural differences that are great between Japan vs. other countries. Lean Six Sigma is my choice but depending on the problem, other options may be leveraged like ITIL, SCOR, PMP, CAP, Agility, BPM, TRIZ, etc…. Each has value or a hybrid to solve particular problems better than others. All teach team collaboration, data-driven approaches, and customer focus.

    I think it a common trait of practitioners to remain teachable and continue to expand our knowledge base of various tools and methods.

    Good Points Michel,

    Additionally other companies have done TPS besides Toyota, like Honda in Japan.

    The tools and methods applies in Lean and TPS are the same, there are just cultural and even technical differences in how and how much is applied

    • Differences in national cultures play no part in the game of soccer. Once you are on the pitch, it doesn’t matter whether you are from Brazil or Russia, it is the same game. Likewise, Manufacturing transcends national culture. Those who claim there is something they can’t do because of their national culture are tying one hand behind their own back.

      I don’t think anybody at Honda would agree that they use TPS. Honda is no slouch at Manufacturing, but fiercely independent. Soichiro Honda used to tell his people to solve their own problems without worrying how others were doing it. I can’t go into specifics, but I know that there are both substantial parts of TPS that they don’t use and a few tricks they have come up with that are not part of TPS.

      The Nissan Production Way looks very similar to TPS, but they have come up with a method called Quick Response Quality Control (QRQC) that is not part of TPS and has been widely adopted in France, probably through Renault’s connection with Nissan.

  6. Comment in the PEX Network & IQPC – Lean Six Sigma & Process Excellence for Continuous Improvement on LinkedIn:

    Michel, well written article…and I’ll add a couple comments and some insight I hope expands on what you’ve already wrote.

    Thinking of TPS as a method, or a set of tools is exactly the problem that resulted in so much misunderstanding of “Lean” in the first place. All the tools we associate with Lean, are nothing more than countermeasures Toyota developed in response to specific problems, nothing more. It’s not about what tools are applied, it’s about the thought process that develops them. The Toyota Production System has never, ever been a static system….because it’s really about promoting a basic scientific problem solving mentality in ever single employee (no special Black Belts, that would rob others of learning opportunities) by being mentors and coaches at every level of the organization. Yes, there are some basic rules (often referred to as true north) that are used to guide direction, but the real difference is that they’ve spent 50+ years working at using every single employee to solve problems using the scientific method….rather than delegating it to specialists. The only problem with the approach (if there is one) is that it takes a lot of time to expand your organization because it’s so dependent on coaching of all those employees.

  7. Comment in the Leadership and Lean The Top 5% discussion group on LinkedIn:

    From my experience whichever label you give it, the most important point is to apply the scientific method approach to your use of the tools of TPS and Lean. Each company, each plant, each department of the plant and even each product has different needs and thus different approaches that may need to be taken.

    The timing of when and how to apply the tools is also key. This only comes from experience.

    Only by using the experiences that you gain from the PDCA or scientific method (hypothesis and test, then adjust based on results and retest). The key is to have very quick cycles of learning – spin the PDCA wheel as fast as possible. From these experiences the teams and individuals gain a unique “know how” for each process and product.

    In conclusion you start with the textbooks and learn from experts what you can but…. in the end you must jump in the pool and start swimming yourself. And be ready to change your direction and stroke almost immediately. Life vests when starting out are also recommended!

  8. Comment in the Leadership and Lean The Top 5% discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Lean has it’s roots from the Toyota system. MIT when conducting a study of Toyota created the term lean as a description of their system. Thus, it began the birth of lean and and creation of differences from its origin.

  9. Comment in the Leadership and Lean The Top 5% discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Some thought to interject.

    History shows Lean finding its roots to America manufacturing with TWI. Lean’s “greatest” accomplishment was not manufacturing cars through TPS rather it was greatest accomplishment was the American TWI system of manufacturing during WW2. After the war, due to not having the raw materials and resources to copy the American manufacturing methods the Japanese developed JIT. Toyota combined JIT with TWI to evolve their way of manufacturing into what has become known today as TPS.

    The word lean has been applied it to TPS. IMO, that is like applying the word love to only one application of the word which would end up causing a lot of confusion in the application of the word. I would offer that is why Toyota uses TPS for their way of manufacturing not the word Lean.

  10. Comment in the PEX Network & IQPC – Lean Six Sigma & Process Excellence for Continuous Improvement discussion group on LinkedIn:

    True Honda would not refer to their program as TPS, but they practice the TPS methods and use the TPS tools.

    Yoy can read about the CEO of Toyota learning Lean http://corporate.honda.com/america/public-policy/article.aspx?id=5568-en

    You will find a good book on Honda’s Process Excellence program here http://www.amazon.com/Powered-Honda-Developing-Excellence-Enterprise/dp/047118182X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1327670238&sr=1-1

    • Michel Baudin • I wish somebody from Honda would speak up. Neither one of the two documents you link to suggests that Honda uses TPS.

      Honda does pursue continuous improvement through its NH circle program (http://world.honda.com/CSR/employee/education/), but I know personally that there are large parts of TPS they don’t use, and that they have developed original methods for some applications, like new product introduction.

      There is a “Honda Production System.” It doesn’t get as much attention as TPS, but it’s not a copy, and you still want to buy their cars after seeing the factories.

      • Comment in the PEX Network & IQPC – Lean Six Sigma & Process Excellence for Continuous Improvement discussion group on LinkedIn:

        Hi Michael,
        The article about the CEO of Toyota learning Lean http://corporate.honda.com/america/public-policy/article.aspx?id=5568-en

        “Even though we were mid-way through the development process, now we were being challenge to adapt the design to these new standards. But because I was at the spot … and we had all of the groups working there together we had the ability to communicate quickly and to develop effective countermeasures. And we were able to keep to our original development schedule. This project turned out to be a bright spot in my career because I learned that lean, efficient and customer-focused manufacturing comes about as a result of good communication and team effort.”

        But I agree, having someone from Honda share their input would be nice.

  11. @Ashley – I see your quote as an example of Honda’s “racing spirit.” Soichiro Honda got the company involved in motorcycle racing from its early days, an activity in which you have to do whatever it takes to be ready on the day of the race. Besides marketing, his goal was to infuse the racing spirit into all the company’s activities, including product development and new product introduction. This is an autonomous Honda development.

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  13. Comment in the Lean Manufacturing & Kaizen discussion group on LinkedIn:

    There are some differences:
    – TPS developed as a system over a period of time, driven by necessity because of Toyota’s unique situation in the 50’s when they made cars for domestic consumption. It was necessary to deal with small lot requirements and several configurations of their products. They developed JIT and Jidoka. They added ‘respect for humanity’ as a guiding principle in their dealings with their employees. together, these three made a holistic approach to manufacturing. over decades of practice, it has become a smooth and perfect way of making produdcts “highest quality, shortest time, lowest cost”. Toyota gave away TPS for nothing. They wanted to give something back to their major market, by freely publicising their system and sending their TSSC to do teach it.
    – Lean, on the other hand, has become a marketed product. each purveyor of lean has in some way to make his approach/product better than the next guy’s. this in itself makes lean diverge from TPS. some tools are stressed more than some others and leads to some cherry picking, looking for the bang for the buck. While doing all this, the basic tenets, whatever they might be, are lost.

    This is just my reflection on the current situation.

  14. Pingback: MIT article comparing Lean, TQM, Six Sigma, “and related enterprise process improvement methods” | Michel Baudin's Blog

  15. Anyone who observes toyota up close (going to the gemba, and the gemba here includes personnel selection, training methods, employee engagement and many other things besides the “Lean tools and methods”) and also companies that practice Lean, can see the huge gap between the Toyota Management System and Lean.

    No wonder only two %!!! of those practising Lean obtain Toyota-level results! No wonder Toyota does not seem too keen on clearing up the issue…

    Lean is not what Toyota practices, it is only a secondary part.

    Mr Womack and the others who wrote “the machine…” Obviusly missed the key factors and misled readers (and themselves)

    The devil is in the details that go beyond Lean and that make a competent application of Lean possible.

    The sad truth is us business schools and their persuasive writers spread concepts and generalities. There is no way any manager can turn such concepts into practical tools.

    Look, Harvard Business School (to mention one) talks and writes about Lean but as an organisation does not practice Lean, so they are teaching something they do not master. Imagine a family practicioner trying to train neurosurgeons by talking in class about surgery; insane.

    GM was partner with Toyota for some 25 years and GM people were allowed to visit and work at the Toyota-managed plant, yet GM was unable to get the shop floor organized like Toyota. Imagine what they got at the human resource management level, labour relations, training methods and programs, product planning and development, relations with suppliers dealers and customers, etc. After 25 years GM went belly up in 2009.

    Well, do you think they kept the partnership with Toyota going and, finally, commit themselves to learn from Toyota? Hell no!, they pulled out, a huge strategic error. Neither did they bring in a Top Toyota guy to run GM. No, they brought in a guy from Boeing, a company which has adopted Lean and far from practising Lean, never mind doing what Toyota does.

    US industry is going the way of the UK; most of their manufacturing obsolete, lots of management games training while the Germans and the Japanese, and others take the market.

    The US it may even do worse than the UK. In fact it reminds me of Germany pre-Hitler; lots of bright scientists, lots of Nobel Prizes, lots of bright bankers, artists and writers yet the country badly mismanaged and the middle class going under.

    US business and US government practice obsolete management. Unfortunately most US managers have not caught on.

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