The Toyota Production System – Why Does it Work?

The Japanese are legendary for efficiency and quality standards, and Toyota has been a global leader in these areas for decades. Their “Toyota Production System” (TPS) principles have fostered manufacturing efficiency and quality standards that far exceed the average.

So what is it that has made Toyota so successful? How does their style and system promote the innovation and consistency that have becomes Toyota’s unofficial trademark?

The truth is that the TPS system is much more than just a manufacturing “system”. It’s actually a complex core business culture. And Toyota immerses their people with their culture and it’s principles at every possible opportunity.

Rather than try to analyze all of the relevant TPS principles here, instead let’s focus on just two of the keys that I think are absolutely essential to the program:

  1. Encouraging and allowing ideas to bubble up from the bottom. Supervisors listen to what the line workers are saying, and good ideas from employees get implemented quickly.
  2. Empowering ALL workers to stop production at any time if there’s a perceived problem. If a worker sees something that doesn’t look right, they have the power and the responsibility to stop the line so the problem can be addressed. This empowerment actually runs counter to some of the popular thinking of a few decades ago. Not that long ago the prevailing wisdom was that you needed to eliminate as much human influence from manufacturing as possible. The thinking was that humans introduced too many variables, so minimizing that influence would make for more consistent manufacturing. For the most part, that sort of thinking hasn’t been real successful.

The Toyota Way requires more dependence on people, not less. TPS depends heavily on the workers to identify hidden problems and to fix those problems. Engineers, quality people, vendors, management, and (most importantly) operators are all involved in continuous problem solving and improvement, which over time encourages everyone to become better problem solvers. It’s truly the people who bring the TPS system to life. It’s a system designed to provide the tools and environment for people to continually improve their work and the products that result from their work. The workers within a TPS system have an innate sense of urgency, purpose, and teamwork, and those things almost always translate into pride and craftsmanship in one’s work.

In the end, it’s ALWAYS the people that make or break any system. Toyota figured that out, built a culture around it, and made it work for them. Empower the people and let them improve the process on a daily basis. Pretty crazy concept, huh?

Kudos to Toyota for cutting against the grain on this one!