Dorothy’s Red Shoes and Toyota:

Silver red shoes

Today’s post is about the theme of adapting and not blindly copying something. Lean is the Western cultural interpretation of what is known as Toyota Production System (TPS). Many companies try to implement TPS by simply copying the tools without understanding the context behind them.

Dorothy’s red ruby shoes are cultural icons from the movie “The Wizard of Oz”. All Dorothy had to do to go home was click the heels three times and command to go home. Poof, like magic she returned home. It is not a widely known fact that Dorothy’s shoes in the actual L Frank Baum’s 1900 book were Silver. The shoes’ color got changed to look “iconic” using the new technology in those days – Technicolor. The shoes appeared extra magical when they were ruby red in the movie. In other words, the movie makers adapted the story to the new technology in order to bring out the best.

What did Toyota Do?

Toyota started off as a Loom Company. Kiichiro Toyoda, son of the founder of the Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, was interested in automobiles. Kiichiro started the Toyota Motor Corporation with little experience in large scale manufacturing. Toyota Production System has been tremendously studied and almost everybody tries to emulate Toyota. In those days, the best production system was Ford’s Mass Production System. It was very much akin to the lean manufacturing system today. In fact, Toyota sent Engineers to study the Ford Production System so that they could come back and implement it. One of the two Engineers sent was Eiji Toyoda, Kiichiro’s cousin, and later the Chairman of Toyota. Eiji was a strong supporter of Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System.

Toyota was founded from the very beginning with aspirations to become the “Ford of Japan”.(Source: The Toyota Leader, Masaaki Sato 2008)

Toyota discovered that the Ford System as a whole did not work for them. The idea of a moving assembly line and the idea of an employee suggestion system were two concepts that Toyota adopted and started using. However, Toyota could not implement the “large scale” production practices that Ford was using. The Ford System was focusing on producing a limited product line in large quantities. It also focused on increasing the efficiency of each operation by making the lot sizes as large as possible. Inventory was considered as a buffer and a blessing to cover any production interruptions. Toyota simply did not have the capabilities to maintain a large scale production.

Taiichi Ohno found two main flaws in the Ford’s Mass Production System:

  • Only the final assembly line achieved anything resembling continuous production flow. At the component level, there were piles of inventory and very limited flow.
  • Ford was unable to accommodate customer preferences for product diversity. This is akin to the famous quote attributed to Ford – “You can have any color as long as it’s black.”

Source: The Japanese Automobile Industry, Michael Cusumano 1985.

Taiichi Ohno created the Toyota Production System by adapting ideas from Henry Ford, Sakichi Toyoda, Kiichiro Toyoda, and numerous others, including the inventor of the Supermarket System. He learned from failures and the production system evolved through numerous trials and errors. The Toyota Production System is a custom fit tailored suit that fits only Toyota, and nobody else. However, like Ohno did, we can certainly learn and adapt from it.

Why Should I Copy Toyota?

The short answer is – you should not blindly copy Toyota. You have to understand your problems, and then adapt the Toyota Production System and address the solutions to your problems. In an interview in 2001, Hajime Oba, a retired TPS Sensei said the following about blindly copying Toyota:

Big Three managers, he says, use lean techniques simply as a way to slash inventory and are satisfied with that. “What the Big Three are doing is creating a Buddha image and forgetting to inject soul in it,” he says.

My Final Words:

I will finish off with a lesson from the famous martial artist Bruce Lee and a funny story about the dangers of blindly copying. Bruce Lee is also considered to be a great philosopher as well.

His four steps for efficiency were;

  • Research your own experience
  • Absorb what is useful
  • Reject what is useless
  • Add what is essentially your own.

And now the story I heard as a kid in India;

A father was worried about his son’s lack of ability when it came to the English language. English was his son’s second language and he always had trouble with essay writing in the test. The father made his son memorize a short essay “My Best Friend”, since he was sure it would be part of the essay component of the test. The son learned the essay verbatim, and felt good about writing his essay for the test.

Unfortunately, the essay topic was “My Father”. The boy thought for a bit, and then started writing based on what he had memorized.

“I believe I have many fathers. Shankar Pramod is my best father. He lives a few blocks from my house. He comes to visit us every day. My mother loves him very much. A father in need is a father indeed.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Anatomy of an Isolated Incident.

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