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Jeff Liker

Dan Jones: Learning beyond Toyota

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Monday, February 8, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Toyota’s impressive growth to become the largest vehicle manufacturer in the world undoubtedly gave the lean movement its unique strength. Organisations who try to follow Toyota’s example only have themselves to blame if they cannot make similar progress. They cannot claim that lean does not work, only that they have not yet fully understood what it entails.

But Toyota’s example also means that the lean movement, unlike almost every other movement, was driven by practice and not theory. Indeed it was well over twenty years after the Toyota Production System was codified that Jim Womack and I described the theory and principles behind its superior practice in Lean Thinking. Toyota has proven to be an invaluable source of reference to go back to time and time again to uncover deeper and deeper layers of its counterintuitive practice.

I have no doubt that there is still a lot to be learnt from watching Toyota respond to today’s dramatic setbacks. But what will live on, whatever happens to Toyota, are the profoundly new ideas and practices that have already begun to transform industry after industry, from automotive to aerospace, construction, distribution, utilities, services and healthcare. As long as these ideas and practices help organisations to do more with less they will live on, long after those who simply want to ride the next “programme” (probably driven by theory rather than practice) have moved on.

One of the profoundly new lessons is how they overturned one of the foundations of modern management, namely the separation of thinkers at the top and doers at the bottom of the organisation. Toyota found a way to turn every one of its employees into a scientist, guided by mentors to use the scientific method to solve ever deeper problems obstructing the value creation process itself. Where we initially saw tools and continuous improvement, they had in fact developed an experiential learning process to teach employees how to think.

Another very important lesson is how to manage the entire, end-to-end value creation processes (which we call value streams) that flow horizontally across departments and organisations, while at the same time maintaining strong vertical functions essential to the deployment of knowledge and resources across the organisation. Most organisations driven by strong functions, departments and business units fail to realize their full potential because everyone focuses on managing their activities in isolation, while no one sees, manages or optimises the horizontal value streams. A relentless customer focus all along the value stream needs to take precedence over narrow departmental interests.

These are just two examples of the way lean thinking goes beyond modern management. On the one hand it is right that as these ideas and practices migrate to new situations they should become the “new common sense”. On the other hand it would also be short sighted to lose sight of the original and continuing source of these ideas and practices.

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