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Toyota, Toyota… Part 2

In Toyota, Toyota… Part 1, I looked into a recent challenge outlined by Toyota’s CEO, Katsuaki Watanabe, to his firm about competition in the auto business.
In this post, I want to look at older article from HBS Working Knowledge titled How Toyota Turns Workers Into Problem Solvers. The article is an interview by with Steven Spear from HBS. The other author in the background that is referred to is Professor H. Kent Bowen who teaches at HBS.
The rationale for studying Toyota’s Production System (TPS) long after a deluge of similar such efforts by various researchers and journalists in various quarters is articulated by Steven Spear as follows:

However, despite Toyota’s openness and the genuinely honest efforts by other companies over many years to emulate Toyota, no one had yet matched Toyota in terms of having simultaneously high-quality, low-cost, short lead-time, flexible production over time and broadly based across the system.
It was from observations such as these that Kent and I started to form the impression that despite all the attention that had already been paid to Toyota, something critical was being missed. Therefore, we approached people at Toyota to ask what they did that others might have missed.

And furthermore,

To paraphrase one of our contacts, he said, “It’s not that we don’t want to tell you what TPS is, it’s that we can’t. We don’t have adequate words for it. But, we can show you what TPS is.”
Over about a four-year period, they showed us how work was actually done in practice in dozens of plants. Kent and I went to Toyota plants and those of suppliers here in the U.S. and in Japan and directly watched literally hundreds of people in a wide variety of roles, functional specialties, and hierarchical levels. I personally was in the field for at least 180 working days during that time and even spent one week at a non-Toyota plant doing assembly work and spent another five months as part of a Toyota team that was trying to teach TPS at a first-tier supplier in Kentucky.

Empiricism is defined as a reliance on observations of phenomenon as perceived in experience of the observer. But for empiricism to be a profitable (and this word is used loosely), you need observers who bounce of ideas against each other, fine tuning their perceptiveness as they advance along the road of interpreting their experiences and observations of phenomenon. It is this collective work built on their shared individual observations, responses and ensuing discussion that in the most general sense creates a framework, specialized langugage and the basis of integrating future observations. In short, this is a body of knowledge that is not only true in the light of observations but also serves as a basis for the future.
What I think that the employees at Toyota were doing in their response is illustrating this problem of articulating this collective body of knowledge (of which culture is but a representation) pithily or in some easily transferrable form – or in other words, it is not in the saying, it is in the doing, the shared doing, structuring and integrating the learned lessons back into the doing on a continual basis. In this framework, there is an insistence on work, understanding it, refining it but in the back on one’s mind is a reflective process of adjusting work to reality.

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About me

I am Chris Jacob Abraham and I live, work and blog from Newburgh, New York. I work for IBM as a Senior consultant in the Fab PowerOps group that works around the issue of detailed Fab (semiconductor fab) level scheduling on a continual basis. My erstwhile company ILOG was recently acquired by IBM and I've joined the Industry Solutions Group there.

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December 2006