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Quality Scan: Reaching the Promised Land

Brad Shepherd




Why has the Toyota Production System (TPS) been such a success in Japan and a failure in the US?

Everyone has probably heard of lean manufacturing and six sigma.These two methodologies complement each other, while reducing waste and eliminating variation from any system's processes.The goal of both methodologies is to reduce costs while increasing customer satisfaction. The two disciplines are included in the TPS, and their tools are not difficult to learn or to use. So why do most US companies that make the noble effort to implement lean/sigma fail so often, and fail so miserably?

Many articles have maintained that the main reason for this outcome is that US companies do not share the same management culture as Japan. In Japanese companies, the culture requires that all employees have autonomy and follow the scientific method. Not just managers or engineers, not just quality assurance engineers or production workers, but everyone.

Managers at Toyota are required to learn the TPS through on-the-job training over a period of years. When these managers emerge from training, they take the reins of a workforce that is basically an army of efficiency experts. In contrast, managers in the US typically rely on just one or two "smart" people on their staff who have a four-year degree and "engineer," or "champion," or "quality" in their job titles. These people have the unenviable task of trying to inject the lean/sigma methodology into the mid-management level of the organization, without support from above. In essence, they are directed to put a round peg in a square hole.

Most of this is probably not news to you. Many excellent articles have been written on this topic. The question of interest is: Why has it been so difficult for US companies to emulate Toyota when it comes to creating a TPS-type culture? What must be done to drive fundamental changes in how our organizations operate?

Unless you are against mothers, apple pie, and a flatscreen TV in every home, you have to agree that an organization's greatest asset is its people. So it follows that the people have to be on board with lean/sigma. That is, they have to know what the tools are, when to use them, and how to use them. We would say that employees who did this would be exhibiting the desired behavior. So, peeling back the onion further, it would make sense to then ask "what has to happen in order to drive this real change in behavior?"

Clearly, a change in attitude is necessary if behavior is to change. And who will change the attitude of the employees? The answer is—drum roll please—the leaders of the organization. (It's hoped, but not assumed, that these leaders are already part of the organization's management team.) The leadership of the organization must set the example, and create a learning-based environment. Doing so begins with creating, and enforcing, work standards. The key to success for the TPS is that Toyota's employees follow an approved procedure called a work standard each time they perform a task. It's critical that US managers create a culture where the common way to do a task is valued above "my" way.

While the rebel-hero approach may have helped Americans settle the Wild West, it just causes chaos when an organization is trying to eliminate waste and variation in a process. Once standards are implemented, they must be continuously improved, and this is where the scientific method comes in. The scientific method consists of planning a change, developing a hypothesis of how the change will affect output, implementing the change, and then comparing the actual output to what was predicted in the hypothesis. If the output represents an improvement over the standard, the standard process can then be updated to include the change. If the output does not improve, then the change is discarded, but through this "failure" more is learned. Regardless of the outcome, the process is constantly revisited in this way to continuously improve its output.

In summary, not only must US management ensure that work standards are created and used properly, but managers must involve every employee in the scientific method, so that waste and variation are continuously reduced. The lean/sigma tools for achieving this goal will not result in sustained improvements unless the organization has a solid foundation of work standardization.


This article was first published in the November 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 11/1/2009

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