The Limits of Imitating Toyota | Bill Waddell

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From Lisa Abellera’s blog, 6/21/2011

“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.’

[…] 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.’

[…]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?’”



Michel Baudin‘s Comments:


Learning by imitation

Imitation is effective for learning. We condemn outright plagiarism, despise imitation, and value creativity. Yet even an original and unique artist like Pablo Picasso learned as a child by copying paintings. In Karate, you learn a new kata by following others. As you memorize the sequence of moves, you learn to perform them with speed and power. Then, as Jim Mather teaches,  you learn the underlying self-defense principles embedded in the kata.

Until the 1970s, many Americans and Europeans dismissed “the Japanese” as imitators who copied what they saw and then competed with the original creators through low wages. But I have not heard this in decades. A principle behind the way Japanese traditional arts are taught is that know-how precedes and leads to know-why. Once you have assimilated techniques to the point that they are second-nature to you, your mind suddenly understands how they fit together as a whole and why they are necessary.

While this approach works not just for Karate, but also for sumi-e, sushi, flower arrangement, and even machining, it can be abused. I would not recommend it, for example, to teach math. Sometimes, what you ultimately achieve as a result of going through motions is only an illusion of understanding that rationalizes the years you have invested in training.

For Lean or TPS, there is no alternative to learning by doing. There is no way to gain an understanding of cells or the Kanban system without living through implementation on an actual shop floor. As a consequence, the first time you do it, you are following along and imitating. Once you understand what you are doing, however, it behooves you to add your own twist and adapt the concepts to your needs.

When brute force imitation works

On the scale of an entire company, we should also not forget that brute-force imitation sometimes works. Once I had in one of my Lean classes a student who was a former plant manager in a large, European auto parts company known for its successful implementation of Lean. “Everything you taught,” he told me,”I used in the plant, but I never knew why, until today.” As he explained to me, the company’s top management  issued “guidelines” to plant managers that were specific on which tools to use, regularly audited the plants,  and routinely fired the managers who did not comply, regardless of results.

It sounds wrong, but how do you argue with success? In retrospect, it worked for that company because it was in the industry for which TPS had been developed and, at least initially, creativity was not necessary to improve on the existing system. Where brute force imitation fails is in new and different industries.

How do you know “what Toyota would do”?

Either you are steeped in Toyota’s ways as a result of being an employee of the company for 10 years, and you have an idea of what its management might do outside of its core business —  including the ways it might misunderstand it — or you have studied Toyota’s system from the outside, and you don’t really know what it would do.

On the other hand, you may have a deeper understanding of the challenge at hand than any Toyota manager. Rather than trying to figure out what Toyota would do, I would rather follow Soichiro Honda’s advice to his engineers: “Solve your own problems.” Learn everything relevant that you can, then use your own judgement. You will be responsible for the outcome anyway.

Divergence and accurate representation

The whole Lean movement started from people learning about the Toyota Production System (TPS). That Lean should diverge from TPS was inevitable, but the Toyota connection remains the key reason business professionals pay any attention to Lean.  Given that the vocabulary itself has changed, making the connection on specifics is not always obvious. “Value Stream” or “Lean Accounting,” for example, are not Toyota  terms, which does not make it easy to gauge the extent to which Toyota uses the concepts.

There is nothing wrong with Lean professionals inventing approaches beyond TPS, but it must be clear and the tools must stand on their own merits. Business executives assume that what they are being sold as “Lean” is what Toyota does. Where it is not the case, they must be told upfront.

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