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Art Smalley

Art Smalley: Lean Versus Historical TPS

By Art Smalley, - Last updated: Monday, September 24, 2012 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

I think this is a pretty interesting question and reflects the current status of Lean in many companies I visit. I often make the distinction that modern day Lean and the actual historical development of the Toyota Production System (TPS) are two pretty different animals. I will try and explain my opinion, provide some examples, and answer the question in the following paragraphs.

For starters if you study most of the books, training, and examples about Lean you quickly see that it is mostly assembly type of examples. That is not surprising as the assembly part of a Toyota facility is the largest section and easies to show people. Anyone can walk through and get a sense of how clean it is, how well organized, how the material moves JIT via kanban, and how work is coordinated via standardized work and PDCA problem solving routines, etc. Go to a Toyota supplier and you will see more of the same. Read most lean consultants and you will get lectured heavily about the importance of “flow”.

I agree that “flow” is certainly a necessary ingredient for the Toyota Production System to flourish but it is not the “end all be all” that it is made out to be by some parties. In strict sense 1) flow, + 2) takt time, + 3) kanban, + 4) leveling comprise the basic elements of the JIT pillar of Toyota’s improvement system. In most companies that are assembly oriented JIT and standardized work can be implemented without too much difficulty which sounds like the assembly plant mentioned in this months question.

However “lean” that may be I argue it is not sufficient enough to be real TPS in many ways. Certainly not in Toyota at least. Despite all the assembly land examples we are inundated with today TPS activities under Taiichi Ohno started in an engine plant with capital intensive processes such as casting, forging, machining, a little stamping, and some assembly mixed it. It was a very diverse mixture of difficult to manufacture products (e.g. a crankshaft) and difficult processes involving complex tooling.

The actual remarkable development of historical TPS is a wonderful story with many interwoven themes in the engine, transmission, and chassis plants of Toyota during the 1950’s, 60’s 70’s and beyond. Time and this format does not allow for full appreciation of the efforts made by my former colleagues and superiors in engine manufacturing at Toyota. The story involves but is not limited to:

I could go on further with this list but I hope readers get the idea. Just like in real life the actual history of what occurred inside of Toyota starting in the engine shops during the 1950’s is quite different, far more relevant and interesting that what we often read about “Lean” today. Particularly for people with capital intensive situations I suggest putting down or not reading too much into textbooks built upon advocating flow and JIT topics. Instead identify what are your impediments to improvement and work on those. In particular as what are barriers to higher equipment uptime, higher process capability, safer equipment, higher capital and labor productivity without adding cost, more highly trained personnel, and you will be on the right track. I call this building better process stability and it is an essential yet often ignored element of the historical Toyota Production System.

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