Is the Toyota Production System Responsible for Toyota’s Success?

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In April of this year it was announced that Toyota had overtaken General Motors as the largest manufacturer of automobiles in the world in terms of vehicles sold. It seems that they will maintain this lead for some time to come. Interesting, a Toyota representative played down the achievement stating that they were focussed on meeting customer needs rather than winning a race.

The Toyota Production System and the Toyota Development System, initially developed in the 1940s and 1950s and publicized in the west in the 70s and 80s, were primary inspirations for the Lean and Agile movements. So is “The Toyota Way” responsible for Toyota’s success? According to a report that I overheard on BBC World Service Radio, yes, at least partially. They mentioned the Toyota Production System and stated that it is now used by most automobile manufacturers. Maybe the superficial details of the production system itself are even used by GM, but the Toyota Production System is based on much more which, according to anecdotes that I have heard, has not been adopted by GM.

The Toyota way is based on respect for their workers and embodies important principles such as self-organisation and adaptive processes that are so important when managing complex systems. It also applies the principle of eliminating waste, so if, for example, a machine needs to be moved to enable a team to do its job better, it will happen without jumping through hoops.

All of this does not sit comfortably with a prescriptive command and control approach, yet many Western organisations remain tied to such practices. In many cases, particularly when there is a crisis, the instinct of Western organisations (including governments) is to add additional controls to their processes (in the form of rules, laws etc.). This is often the opposite of what is required – give people the resources that they need, make them feel that they are truly valued and respected and they will deliver the results.

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