The Toyota Production System (TPS), Philosophy, and DNA

According to Ranga Srinivas, “TPS is a ‘Philosophy’, not a system (System in TPS is given by Western world). That philosophy is in their DNA.”

We tend to get carried away with metaphors, and I think we need to get back to earth.

Louie de Palma

In Japanese, TPS is not only NOT a philosophy, it is not even a system, but just a method! The term is Toyota Seisan Hoshiki (トヨタ生産方式), and Hoshiki means “method,” not “system.” It reminds me of Louie de Palma, the Danny de Vito character in the series Taxi, saying about his girlfriend,  “She sees something in me that no one ever saw, something that isn’t there.”

Let us study TPS for what it really is: the best known way to make cars. And, if Mark Graban can learn from it and improve hospitals, it’s wonderful. But let us not go to a car maker for philosophy. It’s the wrong shop.

Saying it’s the best known way to make cars is not talking it down; it’s what drew me to it. Philosophy is also a wonderful thing, but corporate philosophy is to philosophy as advertising is to poetry. If you parse it, it should be to understand the image management wants to project, not what the company does.

There is a Japanese word for philosophy (tetsugaku, 哲学). Googling “toyota tetsugaku” yields a single occurrence on the Toyota website, in one paragraph about “Business strategy” (hoshin), which translates as follows:

“Toyota aims to be a good corporate citizen through the provision of clean and safe products, to contribute to the prosperity of society, and earn the trust of the international community. I will introduce the vision for the future and Toyota’s philosophy, which is alive in the Toyota Production System and the corporate concept.”

For comparison purposes, this is what GM says about itself on its website:

“In order to achieve our goals, GM has remained committed to the following formula for success:

  1. Move faster and take risks to achieve sustained success, not just short-term results
  2. Lead in advanced technologies and quality in creating the world’s best vehicles
  3. Give employees more responsibility and authority and then hold them accountable
  4. Create positive, lasting relationships with customers, dealers, communities, union partners and suppliers, to drive our operating success.”

I have the greatest respect for TPS, and have experienced its adaptability to industries ranging from making frozen foods to computers and aerospace.  And I understand that you can’t go to a hospital and tell administrators, doctors, and nurses that you are going to help them with a method for making cars. You not only have to adapt it, you must also present it in such a way that they will listen. For 25 years, the word “Lean” has been used for this purpose. It has also been abused, to leverage the respect inspired by TPS in order to promote unrelated ideas.

We also need to be careful about references to DNA in this context. I believe it started with Spear and Bowen Harvard Business Review Article Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System. Culture is nurture; DNA, nature. Your culture is the way your family, school, and society molded you; your DNA is the genetic program that made you.

Generally, we should treat national culture as irrelevant to manufacturing. If Japanese business leaders in the late 19th and early 20th century had considered it relevant, they would have decided that manufacturing was a product of European and American culture that could not be transplanted to Japan.

About housekeeping habits specifically, I remember being impressed, while walking the streets of Rotterdam at night, by houses with the drapes pulled and the lights on to let passers-by admire spotless living rooms. What we saw in factories in the same country, however, told us that the cultural obsession with neatness in daily life did not carry over to the production shop floor.

DNA is even less relevant. In every society, there are misguided individuals who believe that having been born into a particular group makes them better at some activities; the rest of society calls them bigots. If DNA had anything to do with manufacturing excellence, it could not be achieved by learning. You can learn a method, master a system, and even assimilate a culture, but you can’t change your DNA.