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"Old News"

I just got back from the 2000 University of Michigan Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, MI.

I just got back from the 2000 University of Michigan Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, MI. As is par for the course (no pun intended), a lot was said, much of which had been said before and didn't merit hearing again. But for all the infomercial-ness of many of the presentations, there were still a few that strike me as valuable. One was a speech given by Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America Inc. President and CEO Teruyuki Minoura entitled, "Toyota Philosophy: The Foundation for Present & Future." Admittedly, I revere Toyota for its creation of the Toyota Production System (TPS). I look forward to opportunities to listen to Toyotans talk about TPS like devout Christians look forward to Sunday. So obviously I was dismayed when a very smart guy commented to me after this speech: "He didn't say anything." To make matters worse, I was talking to another smart guy later in the week who dropped this bomb: "The Toyota Production System is old news."

Now I've already stated that a good part of what went on up in Northern Michigan this week was old news. But if these two smart guys (and from what I've seen, a whole lot of other not-as-smart guys) lump TPS in the "been-there-done-that" category, it's evidence that there are some fundamental problems with the mainstream, non-Japanese view of lean. And frankly, if our domestic auto industry continues assimilating the lessons of TPS/lean in its current fashion, TPS/lean will never be "old news."

The most basic of these problems is the monumental disparity between the levels of understanding that people have of lean, even within the same organization. It's not enough to have a few "lean gurus" working for your company if most everyone else thinks that lean is some sort of a quick-fix program. Case in point: the other day a consultant told me, "If you look at the book on TPS, it says that it'll take five years to get lean. Our company can show you how to get lean in only six months!" (emphasis authentic). Of course, anyone who knows anything about lean realizes that this guy is a clown, but his stupidity isn't that much removed from the idea that lean is something you implement, rather than something you are.

In his speech, Minoura said that TPS is "a living and constantly evolving system" and consistently referred to it as a philosophy. To contrast, in a speech made the next day about the Mercedes-Benz Production System (which, on paper, seems to be a knock-off of Toyota's), the speaker from DaimlerChrysler used framework. This is indicative of an attitude towards lean that tries to quantify and qualify it, to put lean in a box, so to speak. Think about it: a philosophy is an open-ended thought process, difficult to define; a framework is, well…a box.

Minoura made a point to state that TPS has never been written down as a formulaic process. However, I see companies that want to get lean approaching the task with exactly the opposite mindset. The result is a bureaucratic manual with step-by-step instructions and the requisite paperwork such that any engineer, plant manager, operator, etc. can just follow the corporate rules to success. If it's in the manual, why bother thinking about it? Lean becomes a thing to do (go to the kaizen, fill out the forms, meet the goals, etc.), rather than a way of life.

"The ‘T’ in TPS should stand not only for Toyota, but also for ‘Thinking,’" said Minoura, "The ‘Thinking Production System.’" He went on to tell a story of how Lean Godfather Taiichi Ohno once drew a circle on the floor in the middle of a bottleneck area on the production line and made Minoura stand in it for more than four hours. This experience taught Minoura how to think and how to ask the "five why's." It also gave him the story to tell to others, to teach the wisdom of TPS.

I know that a great number of Americans tend to snicker at the Japanese way of getting their point across by using metaphors, drawing analogies, telling stories, and dropping Buddha references (all of which Minoura did). I suppose the fact that I am a writer may be at the root of why I find this approach so appealing. But isn't this way of transmitting information and sharing ideas far superior to corporate America's process of codification that reduces everything to organization charts, PowerPoint presentations, operations manuals and objective metrics?

"The Toyota Production System is not simply a superficial application of various production techniques, systems and methodologies," said Minoura. No, it's a belief system as complete and far-reaching as any. A way of looking at the world that can only be formed in the same way that our larger society is: through experience and participation, wisdom from our elders, and cultural tales that give us a sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves.

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