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The Toyota Way as a Learning Organization: Developing Scientific Thinkers

Multiple Shingo Award–winning management and operations expert, Jeffrey Liker, provides a deep dive into Toyota’s world-changing processes.

The Toyota Production System, with its twin towers of just-in-time and built in quality, became a model that swept manufacturing and service organizations. Referred to as lean management, the interpretation was that it was a way to streamline processes by eliminating waste, delivering value faster and better for customers. This is certainly a positive vision in today’s fast changing world, but “eliminating waste” gives us a misleading image.  The mechanistic view of lean is that various tools such as one-piece flow cells and visual tools like metric boards are like independent variables which when implemented eliminate waste leading to measurable outcomes like on-time delivery, reduced inventory, and better quality. If the world was only so simple and linear.

In the second edition of The Toyota Way I make clearer that these tools only come to life in the hands of highly developed people who learn to think and act scientifically in the direction of these goals. “Kaizen” or continuous improvement by everyone, everyday can move the organization to achieve goals and adapt to a changing environment. The standards for scientific thinking are modest and well defined in the book Toyota Kata by Mike Rother:

  • Acknowledging that our comprehension is always incomplete and possibly wrong.
  • Assuming that answers will be found by test rather than just deliberation.
  • Appreciating that differences between what we predict will happen and what actually happens can be a useful source of learning and corrective adjustment.”

When viewed through the lens of scientific thinking, one-piece flow of value to customers becomes a vision to strive for. Tools like work cells might possibly help in the struggle to work toward this ideal. Continuous improvement becomes a process of overcoming obstacles like equipment breakdowns, quality defects, and failing logistics systems by developing creative countermeasures and then testing them in practice. Progress looks like a creative process of coming up with ideas and testing them through a series of experiments, some successful, some not, rather than mechanical implementation of known solutions.

In practice this is the basis of a learning organization. It starts with people who learn that systems are complex and therefore the future is unpredictable. Plans are useful, but mainly as frameworks with milestones, and then reality hits quickly altering the plans. There are obstacles to overcome, like climbing a mountain, and you discover them and overcome them one by one, in each case learning something useful for dealing with future obstacles.

In the Toyota Way second edition I use the framework of puzzle pieces interconnected like a system, the 4Ps of philosophy, process, people, and problem solving (see figure 1). The philosophy is the company’s purpose and recognizes that the world is complex, interconnected, and nonlinear—a system. Processes are visions to strive for—one-piece flow, built-in quality, highly functioning people and equipment. People strive toward this ideal vision by solving problems everyday through scientific thinking. I also put scientific thinking in the center. It is the basis for the philosophy, the way we approach improving processes, the way people are developed, and the way we solve problems.

It would be lovely if people were natural scientific thinkers, acting based on facts, and viewing creative ideas as tentative until tested. We could communicate more effectively, we could get to the root cause of problems, we could play our part in a mosaic of teams working on interconnected problems, and we could align toward common goals. But for the most part this is all unnatural. We naturally have biases, jump to conclusions, see the world through our own colored glasses, pursue our own interests and argue with others who disagree. 

Toyota concluded that these natural characteristics were not good enough to meet company goals so they determined to invest in developing people who fit the needs of the Toyota Way.  “Managers” from the front-line supervisor to the most senior executive needed to be trained to be leaders and coaches who develop the people on their team. They needed themselves, whatever their level, to go to the front line and understand the reality of adding value and wasting effort.  The company needed to be guided by a culture—beliefs, values, ways of thinking—that put people first and valued shared learning. This took decades and the stunning realization that they could and would slip backwards and it is a never-ending journey.  Kaizen and learning became the cornerstone of how the company would develop products, make products, deliver value to customers, and contribute to society.  This is the Toyota Way.

To read more from Jeffrey Liker, check out his new book, The Toyota Way 2nd Edition.

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The Toyota Way as a Learning Organization: Developing Scientific Thinkers

Jeffrey K. Liker is the author of the bestselling The Toyota Way. He is a professor of industrial and operational engineering at the University of Michigan and co-owner the lean consulting firm Optiprise, Inc. His Shingo award-winning work has appeared in such publications as Harvard Business Review and Sloan Management Review.