Toyota’s quality philosophy

The focus on quality in Toyota is consistent with the Lean philosophy because it is almost the same things. First, this term was coined by John Krafcik, who worked as a quality engineer in the Toyota-GM NUMMI joint venture in California. Second, he used this term to describe the Toyota Production System (TPS), which turned into Lean production philosophy in the USA..

It is necessary to understand the concept of Lean production in its widest sense. Many managers use the term «Lean» to describe simple waste reduction. Really, the elimination of waste saves time and reduces production costs. However, the approach of Toyota high management to this concept includes many other production aspects. Toyota focus on quality is concentrated not only on «muda» (waste) reduction; it also aims to reduce «mura», or unevenness, and «mun», or overburden.. The main purpose of Toyota’s approach to the Lean philosophy is to create the smooth flow of production. The implementation of smooth flow removes the problems with quality in natural way. .The initial purpose of lean is preserving value with less work. However, this approach requires strong preparative work and high quality on every stage of production.

The firm cannot actually follow the Lean philosophy without the strong focus on quality. According to Lean, every defect is a waste. The effort involved in inspecting for and fixing defects are in the list of seven deadly wasted defined by Taiichi Ohno, who is known as a father of Toyota Production System. Thus, the follower of Lean should avoid defects and focus on quality. TSP slightly transformed in the USA, but the focus on quality remained the same.

The «coordinators» on the US Toyota plants referred to the article were midlevel Japanese managers with big experience of work for Toyota in Japan. Their task was to educate the personnel on the foreign plants and to promote TPS.  Toyota’s management used the same approach as many training companies nowadays do: they developed the network of TPS followers linked with its developer Taiichi Ohno.  The same scheme is often used by different religious cults, so Hajime Oba, TSP-guru, unsurprisingly called this system «a form of religion».  TPS is not the easily-obtained skill; it is the philosophy, closely connected with Japanese culture. It is important to remember that Japan never was rich by natural sources. Minimalistic approach in every aspect of everyday life is traditional in Japan. The situation in the North America is different: the territory of the United States was always rich by different sources. The roots of different business approaches go to the difference in geography and history. While Japanese people always tried to get the best using the limited territory and poor sources of their islands, Americans acted as the colonists, trying to spread their influence in the fastest possible way.    Thus, coordinators had not only taught the philosophy of production but also had but also brought the part of Japanese culture to American personnel. As it known, the culture is linked with language.  Thus, the teaching of Japanese language and culture was the significant part of the learning process.  For now there are no English words for Japanese concepts «muda» and «mura».  The coordinator had to be the religious leader, the teacher of Japanese language and culture and the experienced manager at the same time. So, they are so hard to replicate.

Hajime Oba thought that managers at Detroit’s Big Three auto makers use Lean techniques simply as a way to slash inventory. «What they are doing is creating a Buddha image and forgetting to inject soul in it» (p.547). Without metaphors it means that managers of American auto manufacturers adopted only the external form of process without understanding of its inner nature. It is the difference mentioned above: different cultures have different business approaches. It is typical situation in Western business tradition: often Western businessmen take only the part they need without paying attention to other parts.  Really, the story of Toyota’s performance on the international market, especially on the market of the USA, supports the idea of partial TPS implementation on American plants and its questionable results. Moreover, American researchers analyzed TPS and developed Lean philosophy and some other concepts: kanban, poka-yoke and others. The problem is that these concepts were the part of the system.  Their effectiveness without the system is lower than the effectiveness of TPS.

My personal understanding of American automakers makes me agreeing with Hajime Oba. The approach to Lean in Japan and North America reflects the difference between Western and Eastern way of thinking. Western auto manufactures adopted only the scheme. Moreover,  Western researchers and analytics developed several concepts based on the TPS:  Sure, it helps to increase the production, to reduce costs and to slash inventory. However, to achieve the maximal results it is necessary to follow the Japanese scheme.  Japanese TPS-gurus highlighted typical mistakes in Lean implementation. Two of them are the following: the under-estimation of leadership in TPS implementation, and wrong start, without the basic knowledge. Both these mistakes can be noticed in American auto manufacturing companies.

After the invasion into the international auto market Toyota had to adopt some rules of international business. For example, the network of Toyota producing plans and subcontractors was characterized by one of Toyota group top-managers as the following: «the group, which handled it (quick recovery)  without thinking about money of business contract» (p.525)  Personal relations are very important part of Japanese corporative culture. In particular, for this reason Japan TPS gurus emphasize the importance of leader in Lean implementation. Coordinators, Japanese midlevel managers on the North America plants, also worked on the personal ties creation. However, in the Georgetown plant Toyota management was forced to change the usual scheme. The flexibility of the system and ability to satisfy the growing demand on their production are the significant part of Toyota’s ideology. However, the fast expansion required more and more TSP coordinators. The lack of skilled coordinators led to fall in quality. Without the nurturing in the Toyota manufacturing way some hourly assemblers missed some standard procedures of quality control. Besides, the Georgetown plants lost some TPS coordinators because of age and competitors. The most significant personality was Kazumi Nakada, TSP master, who left for GM plant in 1995.

Without the constant work with TPS specialists the production quality began decrease. To return the quality on the initial level and make the plant less dependent from TPS specialists from Japan, the top-manager of the plant hired Hajime Oba, TSP-specialists mentioned above. Mr. Oba recommended hiring about 70 midlevel managers from different Toyota plants with the experience of working with «real life» kaizen (constant improvement). Toyota faced to the necessity to take Lean production to a new level – «one that is simple enough to function without the constant help of Japanese coordinator with 20 years of experience or more in Lean production»

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