Toyota Production System

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 09-06-08

Author: Taiichi Ohno

Publication Date: 1978

Book Description: What’s the key message?

As a book, Toyota Production System is one of the most important books in any lean leader’s library. The primary reason is its author, Taiichi Ohno. While the development of the Toyota Production System at Toyota is not the work of any one person, Taiichi Ohno receives and deserves more credit than perhaps any other, and is often considered the father of modern lean knowledge. This book is written as insights into Ohno’s mind, which it provides directly. Because Ohno is a leader first, and not an author, the book’s flow and ability to build a central theme is challenged, but these are faults easily overlooked by focusing on its content and direct messages.  Toyota Production System will not give you a detailed account of how to apply lean techniques, or provide you with a roadmap of what to do first, second and third. But it will provide a window into Ohno’s way of thinking, which if digested and applied, is much more useful over the life of your lean journey. The topics covered are eclectic, covering everything from just-in-time to the changing nature of a global economy. The bulk of the book is covered in four chapters. Chapter 1, titled Starting from Need, covers topics including the oil crisis. This chapter helps the reader understand that Toyota and Ohno did not create TPS in a vacuum as some idealistic change program, but instead responded to the needs of the company and its customers in the face of competition, a struggling infrastructure and changing needs in the market place. This is an important lesson that many lean initiatives should relearn. Chapter 2, titled Evolution of the Toyota Production System, explores more specifically how Ohno’s thinking helped shape the production system itself. This chapter starts appropriately with “Repeating Why Five Times” which is perhaps the single most important skill in a lean masters portfolio. Chapter 3, titled Further Development, continues this topical exploration including “Re-examining the Wrongs of Waste” which is a topic the author clearly speaks of with passion. The final chapter is titled Genealogy of the Toyota Production System which among other things, Ohno traces TPS roots including giving credit for autonomation to Toyoda Sakichi and giving credit for just-in-time to Toyoda Kiichiro. In part due to the lineage of the Toyoda family and their impact on Toyota Motors, these two concepts are still considered the twin pillars of the Toyota Production System. This book feels a little like a lecture series titled “Topics by Taiichi Ohno” but this is an author who would draw quite a crowd to listen to his thoughts.

How does it contribute ot the lean knowledge base?

This book is first and foremost important because of its historical significance. Even though the term ‘lean’ was coined in the late 1980s and has been examined by many angles, this is the view from the outside in from a historical figure who may have had the most dramatic impact on what we know of as lean today. Furthermore, the books content makes clear that the development of the Toyota Production System was not merely an exercise in industrial engineering and improving production techniques, but that it was born from ideas and a vision. Whenever one believes they understand the source of all lean thinking, this is the book to test those ideas as Ohno’s Toyota Production System can most credibly be considered the authoritative source.

What are the highlights? What works?

The power of this book comes from its visibility into the philosophy out of which TPS was born. This includes ideas such as “My Plant-First Principle” where Ohno states “The production plant is manufacturing’s major source of information. It provides the most direct, current and stimulating information about management.’ (p. 20). You might know that an idea within TPS is going to the gemba, or source, in many cases the plant floor. But here you get to hear in the words of Ohno why he considers this idea important. Armed with knowledge of lean techniques, this book will deepen your understanding into why those techniques work and how they are truly intended to be used.

What are the weaknesses? What’s missing?

This book is not a how-to or manual on how to apply or recreate the Toyota Production System. It is written in a style where topical issues during the time of its writing deeply influenced the text, which must be taken into consideration. And the author’s style, while direct, is not the easiest to digest and understand what he is truly saying. These are the shortcomings that most likely are necessary to receive the genuine article of the words of Taiichi Ohno.

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

This is not a good book to start a lean study because of its somewhat esoteric nature. However, it is a must read both for executives leading a lean transformation and lean practitioners trying to execute one. Keep in mind as you read the time period in which it was written and some of what was going on in the industry at that time. Also, don’t be overly prescriptive in adopting its teachings, but instead use it as fuel and material to shape your own thinking. This book is best if read and then discussed, particularly in the context of a real transformation with the open question being “how does this influence our approach?”