Learning from the World’s Best Learning Organization: Book Summary of ‘The Toyota Way’

Toyota is a Paragon of Operational Excellence

Toyota is the World’s Most Benchmarked Company, and for Good Reason

Toyota’s cars are reputed for their reliability, initial quality, and long-term durability. It is the pioneer of modern, mass-production techniques and a paragon of operational excellence. Even if its reputation has taken a beating in the last few years because of the uncontrolled acceleration crisis and major product recalls, Toyota’s long-term standing as the epitome of quality production is undeniable.

Toyota measures and improves everything—even the noise that doors make when they open and close. As cars roll off assembly lines, they go through a final inspection station staffed by astute visual and tactile inspectors. If they spot even a simple paint defect, they don’t just quietly fix the problem merely by touching up the paint to satisfy the customer or their plant manager. They seek out systemic deficiencies that may have contributed to the problem, and may hint at deeper troubles with their processes.

World-Class Processes, World-Class Quality

'The Toyota Way' by Jeffrey Liker (ISBN 0071392319) As Jeffrey K. Liker explains in his excellent The Toyota Way, the genius of Toyota lies in the Japanese expression ‘jojo‘: it has gradually and steadily institutionalized common-sense principles for waste reduction (‘muda, mura, muri‘) and continuous improvement (‘kaizen.’) Liker, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Michigan (my alma mater) has studied the Toyota culture for decades and has written six other books about learning from Toyota.

Liker establishes the context of The Toyota Way with a concise history of Toyota Motor (and the original Toyoda Textile Machinery business) and the tone set by Toyota founders Sakichi and Kiichiro Toyoda. Quality pioneers such as Taiichi Ohno, W. Edwards Deming, and Joseph Juran instituted groundbreaking philosophies that shifted Toyota’s organizational attention from managing resource efficiencies in isolation to managing the flow of value generated by the Toyota Production System (TPS.)

“No Problem is the Problem:” How Toyota Continuously Improves the Way it Works

Liker devotes a bulk of his book to the distinct elements of Toyota’s foundational principles: continuous flow, minimal inventory, avoidance of overproduction, balanced workload, standardized tasks, visual control, etc. He drills down to the underlying principles and behaviors of the Toyota culture: respect people, observe problems at the source, decide slowly but implement swiftly, and practice relentless appraisals of the status quo. Liker states, “Toyota’s success derives from balancing the role of people in an organizational culture that expects and values their continuous improvements, with a technical system focused on high-value-added flow.”

Toyota mindset and the organizational discipline

Companies that have tried to emulate Toyota have struggled not with understanding its management tools but with putting into practice the mindset and the organizational discipline that permeates everything Toyota does. “Understanding Toyota’s success and quality improvement systems does not automatically mean you can transform a company with a different culture and circumstances.”

Book Recommendation: Read The Toyota Way. As Liker observes, “Toyota is process oriented and consciously and deliberately invests long term in systems of people, technology and processes that work together to achieve high customer value.” The Toyota Way is comprehensive and well organized, if tedious in certain parts. It can impart many practical pointers to help improve the operational efficiency of one’s organization. Peruse it.

Postscript: I’ve taken many tours of Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky, factories and a few associated suppliers—once as part of a lean manufacturing study tour organized by Liker’s research group and other times privately. I strongly recommend them for observing Toyota’s matchless culture in action on the production floor. I also recommend the Toyota Commemorative Museum in Nagoya for a history of Toyoda Textile Machinery and Toyota Motor and their management principles.

How Smart Companies Get Smarter: Seek and Solve Systemic Deficiencies

At Toyota, as cars roll off the assembly line, they go through a final inspection station staffed by astute visual and tactile inspectors.

At Toyota, as cars roll off the assembly line, they go through a final inspection station staffed by astute visual and tactile inspectors. If these inspectors spot a paint defect, they don’t just quietly fix the problem merely by touching up the paint to satisfy the customer or their plant manager.

As part of Toyota’s famed kaizen continuous improvement system, floor workers identify the systemic causes that led to the specific defect on the specific car. They then remedy the root cause of the problem so it won’t happen again.

Fostering an atmosphere of continuous improvement and learning

Most companies cherish employees who are watchful of problems and take it upon themselves to detect and solve problems without criticism or complaint. A software company, for example, may treasure a programmer who observes an unforeseen coding mistake, and swiftly develops a patch to keep her project moving forward.

In contrast, companies like Toyota who are obsessive about quality improvement, organizational learning, and developing collective intelligence don’t reward or tolerate such quiet fixers.

Taiichi Ohno - 'Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.' At companies that have adopted the kaizen philosophy, continuous improvement originates from the bottom up through suggestion systems that engage and motivate floor employees to look out for systemic problems, raise quality concerns, and help solve those problems. These companies encourage their employees to actively seek small, simple, and incremental improvements that could result in real cost savings, higher quality, or better productivity. According to Taiichi Ohno, the legendary Japanese industrial engineer identified as the father of the Toyota Production System, “Something is wrong if workers do not look around each day, find things that are tedious or boring, and then rewrite the procedures. Even last month’s manual should be out of date.”

Idea for Impact: To develop collective intelligence and build smarter organizations, discourage employees from heroically patching up recurring problems. Instead, encourage them to find, report, analyze, experiment, and fix systemic problems to prevent their recurrence.