The Toyota Way

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 09-06-08

Author: Jeffrey Liker

Publication Date: 2003

Book Description: What’s the key message?

The Toyota Way is a study of how Toyota manages and improves itself. It addresses not just solutions and tools, but the supporting culture and skills as well. It is done as an enterprise-wide exploration and not limited to manufacturing. The vast bulk of this book lays out 14 dimensions (listed as principles, but dimensions is a better descriptor). Each dimension receives the attention of a chapter. The 14 dimensions explored are as follows.

  1. Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.
  2. Create a continuous process flow to bring problems to the surface.
  3. Use “pull” systems to avoid overproduction.
  4. Level out the workload (work like the tortoise, not the hare).
  5. Build a culture of stopping to fix problems, to get quality right the first time.
  6. Standardized tasks and processes are the foundation for continuous improvement and employee empowerment.
  7. Use visual control so no problems are hidden.
  8. Use only reliable, thoroughly tested technology that serves your people and process.
  9. Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others.
  10. Develop exceptional people and teams who follow your company’s philosophy.
  11. Respect your extended network of partners and suppliers by challenging them and helping them improve.
  12. Go and see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation.
  13. Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options; implement decisions rapidly.
  14. Become a learning organization through relentless reflection and continuous improvement.

Many of these dimensions have been covered before in varying degrees of depth. For example, the 3rd dimension of “use pull systems to avoid overproduction” has been covered in some depth in almost every book on lean. There are some dimensions that are fresh contributions. Dimension 9 is “grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others” seems intuitively obvious, yet the focus on leader development is very underrepresented in current publications. Many activities both within HR processes and through daily practices are in support of this principle. The efforts to develop people before they become a full employee are notable for their depth and breadth. And the process to connect people through andon and other processes within the business of daily production are hard to see but dramatically different than most options. Using every activity to simultaneously fix problems but also develop leaders is a significant distinguishing feature of The Toyota Way. Dimension 13 is “make decisions slowly and by consensus, thoroughly considering all options; implement decisions rapidly.”  Toyota is known for their conservative decision making, but it is not just that it is slow or risk-averse. The process for gaining consensus is designed with purpose of both ensuring sound decisions but also to generate a significant level of alignment and commitment, ensuring that once the decision is made, it is implemented effectively and consistently. This dimension has perhaps grown in importance due to Toyota’s global growth and diversification. Dimension 14, “become a learning organization through relentless reflection and continuous improvement”, has been often stated but very infrequently with any depth. Even authors who promote the very concept of a learning organization fail to acknowledge this embedded dimension within Toyota. It is often said that an organization’s ability to learn and adapt is its only sustainable advantage, which is perhaps a good reason for this principle to come last in the list, although certainly not least in importance.

How does it contribute ot the lean knowledge base?

The Toyota Way took a place as a significant lean book almost immediately upon its release. It is very widely read and has in part invoked a new wave of waking people up to lean as The Machine That Changed the World did almost 15 years before it. It does share a trait with that book in that it is not about how to do it yourself. It’s overall impact will be measured much more by the number of people it gets interested and committed to lean rather than the effectiveness of lean execution.

What are the highlights? What works?

There are two primary strengths of The Toyota Way. First, it is the most focused and thorough insight into Toyota since the books written about the Toyota Production System from Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo. Some books have touched on Toyota or have focused on a specific aspect, but this is intended as a long-overdue full Toyota review. The second strength is while production is a very central component of the book, it is not exclusively focused on production. Examples and topics from beyond the factory floor get significant attention and detail.

What are the weaknesses? What’s missing?

The authors do not really approach this study as a comparison of how Toyota is different from others. As a result, many things they describe as part of the Toyota Way also exist in other automotive companies. This means they are not distinguishing factors for Toyota, just distinguishing for the auto industry. Most readers will not be able to filter through this fact and won’t separate the Toyota factors from the industry factors. A second weakness of this book is that it is researched through interviews, not based on structured observation, participation or experience from within. This creates difficulty distinguishing the ideas espoused by those in Toyota versus those actually practiced. The third weakness, albeit by design is that the book is meant to describe Toyota, not help you make your own company lean.

How should I read this to get the most out of it?

This book, while long in number of pages, is a fairly easy read. If you are familiar with the automotive industry, it is very easy to digest. Like any book it is meant to be read thoroughly, The Toyota Way can be well understood by skimming. This is a good first read for someone unfamiliar with lean and Toyota to generate greater interest and understanding.