TPS’s Operation Paradox:

Recently, I came across an interesting insight at the Toyota Global website. The section of interest is shown below:

Eventually, the value added by the line’s human operators disappears, meaning any operator can use the line to produce the same result. Only then is the jidoka mechanism incorporated into actual production lines. Through the repetition of this process, machinery becomes simpler and less expensive, while maintenance becomes less time consuming and less costly, enabling the creation of simple, slim, flexible lines that are adaptable to fluctuations in production volume.

I was taken aback by the first sentence of the paragraph – eventually, the value added by the line’s human operators disappears! Generally, we talk about increasing the value-added activities in Lean or TPS (Toyota Production System). Here, Toyota seems to be stating a paradox – We should get so good at what we do that we do not add value anymore. We keep finding better and better ways at doing what we do that it does not necessarily need us or even a human to do that job.

The website details the ideas of TPS, mainly Jidoka. Jidoka is the idea of building-in quality so if a defect is produced, the line stops automatically. I have talked about it on my website before – here and here. Toyota is advising us to make the operations as simple as possible. We are advised to remove the complexity of the operation. The operator does not have to face unwanted complexity. This complexity should be absorbed by the Engineers or Management designing the assembly line or the operation. This is an idea similar to Tesler’s law that I have discussed before. Before we can implement the ideas of Jidoka, we need to make the operation as stable as possible by avoiding unwanted variation from the operations. By doing this, multiple machines can be handled by one operator.

The paradoxical message might seem to be promoting automation. It is not so simple. Toyota focuses on work done by hand. The website states:

The work done by hand in this process is the bedrock of engineering skill. Machines and robots do not think for themselves or evolve on their own. Rather, they evolve as we transfer our skills and craftsmanship to them. In other words, craftsmanship is achieved by learning the basic principles of manufacturing through manual work, then applying them on the factory floor to steadily make improvements. This cycle of improvement in both human skills and technologies is the essence of Toyota’s jidoka. Advancing jidoka in this way helps to reinforce both our manufacturing competitiveness and human resource development.

The emphasis on doing the work by hand ensures that we understand all the aspects of the operation. Even if a robot is doing the work, it has to be most efficient. This allows for maximum flexibility. The robot imitates a human activity whether it is to grab or move or transform something. When most companies are going for automation, Toyota focuses on simpler activities that might be done with simple machines rather than state of the art robots. The push is to simplify the operation even for a robot! The manufacturing world has to adapt to ever changing demands, and this means that the assembly lines or the operations will have to be changed as needed. The environment has a lot more variety than what we can tackle. Thus, the goal is not to get stuck with a monument of expensive and large automation but simple and small machines/robots that can be easily moved or modified as need to meet the demand. The website continues:

Human wisdom and ingenuity are indispensable to delivering ever-better cars to customers. Going forward, we will maintain our steadfast dedication to constantly developing human resources who can think independently and implement kaizen.

We are to do our jobs so that we can keep “dehumanizing” the activities so that we have more time to focus on making more improvements. By “dehumanizing”, I mean that we keep improving our work so that we are not engaged in repetitive activities that can be done by a machine. The more time we spend on making improvements, the more efficient and effective we become. The machine can be viewed as a closed system. It keeps doing what it is programmed to do. When we interact with the machine, we provide it with new information that allows it to do something new.  

Taking this idea of the paradox further – in an ideal world, when we do our jobs effectively, we are engaging in eradicating our jobs all together. For example, a doctor should be engaging in activities to create conditions where a doctor is no longer needed!

I will finish with Taiichi Ohno’s wise words:

It is easy to remember theory with the mind; the problem is to remember with the body. The goal is to know and do instinctively.

This post is also available as a podcast here.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Complexity is in the Middle:

3 thoughts on “TPS’s Operation Paradox:

  1. During my study Physics I learned that (this) universe is inherently paradoxical. I concluded that “energies” and paradoxes are equivalent. Like energy, paradox is conserved. Most physicists believe paradoxes result from use of language or incorrect hypotheses. They “hide” a paradoxical nature of nature in theories, laws and mathematics (which is also paradoxical).

    Scientists try to “solve” or eradicate paradox. One of the arguments being that then you’ll belong to a consistent, scientific community. In doing so, these communities “enforce” their perspective, ignoring paradoxes. People prefer consistency (in theories) or proof over completeness (in practice) and truth . Logic can only exist in an illogical universe. And vice versa.

    Spencer-Brown distinguished himself by making a distinction that made a distinction. Showing that this leads to logic as well as the paradoxes of “space”, “time” and an universe that observes itself. (My formulation). Time, for instance, is the way universe prevents everything from happening at the same time.

    Paradoxes don’t constitute problems, because they “solve” each other. Paradoxes are at work. (The word energy comes from the Greek, I later learned, meaning at (en) work (ergos)). We can only work on “solving” part-part paradoxes.

    Bateson (and Watzlawick) showed we can distinguish two types or tastes of paradoxes: complementary or part-part and symmetrical or whole-whole paradoxes.

    In the first, parts complement each others, co-operating, like in a production line, an organisation or organs (yes, Greek for “working”) in your body. Paradoxes organize self-organizing organisms. Our solving of problems organizes parts into wholes, that’s why organizing “works”.

    Paradoxes seem to be solved. In the end however, this leads to stagnation, as organizing organisations becomes more important than cooperating. Organizing organisation (“maintenance”) becomes its own “problem”. This can be “solved” by “competing” with other “wholes”.

    Whole-whole paradoxes leads to competing and to escalating, “destroying” each other into … parts. So here you can see how what we’re calling paradoxes is the working of the universe iitself.

    In systems thinking, we “hide” paradoxes in complexity. Or the other way around. It’s not that I’m against systems thinking and trying to understand what works; I think it’s futile to try to understand in order to control “complexity”. Complexity has done a great job so far.


    • Thank you for a great response. Coincidentally, I have been reading upon Laws of Form and paradoxes. More to come!


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