Lean Manufacturing and the Toyota Production System

Posted on May 3, 2012  Comments (6)

In this post I explore my thought about what lean (lean manufacturing, lean thinking…) means. The way I think about it is that lean manufacturing sprung from Toyota. It seems to me the lean manufacturing name was meant to capture the entire Toyota Way. Capturing the whole of what that encompasses isn’t possible in 1 or 2 or even 10 books so it wasn’t done completely.

To me the difference between lean manufacturing described early on by Womack and Jones and the Toyota Way was more about what can be captured and conveyed than about an intentional creation of “lean” ways that are different than Toyota ways.

The question is further complicated by what happens with any management idea of any popularity: the using of the name with all sorts of watered down and even just plain not-lean implementations. So much of what is called “lean” is not the Toyota Production System (TPS), it isn’t even lean.

It seems to me today there is no real accepted authority for what is lean. LEI is good. Some people might say they should be the arbiter but they are not in any way I know of.

Then too, over time any organization of people changes. So what Toyota does today isn’t exactly what Taiichi Ohno would say they should be doing. Even the Toyota Way can be ignored by Toyota. And Ohno certainly wouldn’t think standing still was the answer. Just like Deming; Kiichiro, Sakichi and Shoichiro Toyoda; Ohno expected the management system itself to continually improve. And just like Deming, they would expect the implementation in a different organization (different system) to be different.


The way I think about it lean thinking (manufacturing/heathcare…) is essentially the Toyota Way. If you are implementing lean ideas and run into a challenge you can’t figure out. Looking to the Toyota Way is a very smart idea. I also see the Toyota Way as a instance of the application of Deming’s management ideas (and then Toyota, as expected, made some great innovations with new management tools and ways to think about managing processes and systems). So, looking to Deming is also wise.

Lean software methods developed outside Toyota. To me those new ways of viewing the production of software is very tied to the Toyota Way. Toyota happened not to be the first to lead in seeing how to apply lean concepts to software. But those concepts are in harmony with the Toyota Way it seems to me.

And it makes lean thinking stronger if we have a strong belief that it springs from the Toyota Way and Deming when we are applying lean thinking. It makes it easier to notice shortcuts being taken. There is also the option to just say “lean” is so polluted it is almost meaningless. But I think it is useful to have unifying terms that make it easier for us to learn from each other. So as confusing It is hard to know what is meant if you just see the words “lean manufacturing.” You need more context to understand what the author means (something I would call lean or some crazy version that has little evidence of respect for people or managers actually spending there time a the gemba).

I see lean as the general principles (kind of like one of Plato’s forms). Toyota is one example of a working lean system, but it is also the parent (so it is a very special example). And to me if lets say you fail to see an appreciation for long term thinking in all the lean material if you study the Toyota Way and see it, I would then say the lean material is missing something, rather than see it as an intentional created difference in lean.

The problem of “lean” not having any agreed to keeper of the body of knowledge does make it difficult to know what “lean” means.

I don’t know of an instance where “lean” was designed to specifically say, you know what, Toyota hasn’t gotten completely rid of all performance appraisals as Deming suggested. This is a failure by the Toyota Way to live up to the principle we now intentionally choose for lean.

I do think as many organizations have really put into place some very well designed and implemented lean management systems, new ideas that Toyota didn’t pioneer are becoming more common (for example, much of the work in service, software development, healthcare…).

Please, let me know your thoughts on the ideas I discussed in this post.

Related: Womack’s Lean versus Ohno’s TPSToyota Development Process

6 Responses to “Lean Manufacturing and the Toyota Production System”

  1. Jason Yip
    May 3rd, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

    Have you read The Birth of Lean?

  2. John Hunter
    May 3rd, 2012 @ 7:55 pm

    I have not read The Birth of Lean, it looks interesting. I will order it as soon as I can get through the silly complexity added by those that love to add complexity where it doesn’t belong.

    “This title is not available for customers from your location in: Asia & Pacific(change region)”

    The ebook is a bargain at $9.99. Sadly the curse of needlessly adding complexity and making life difficult for customers relating to ebooks strikes and I get that message when trying to order it.

    Sigh. I wish LEI wouldn’t allow their products to be sold in ways that just makes life difficult for customers. Just because it is easy to make life difficult with electronic sales doesn’t mean you should. I can’t see any good reason why the purchase of this ebook should be dependent on you location on the planet earth. Or why customers certain locations should be blocked from buying.

    The excuse for these bad customer practices are normally related to copyright. It is sad that customers are subjected to this type of treatment.

  3. Martin Boersema
    May 4th, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

    I don’t think you can ever be truly lean. You can look at an aspect of a business and say, ” Yes, that’s lean.” Or “That company practices lean principles.” But continuous improvement is part of lean and the Toyota Production System. Toyota isn’t perfect. They deviate from their own systems.

    I guess my point is, when someone points to such and such a company as a great example of lean manufacturing, upon closer examination you will find non-lean activities. So now we are faced with different levels of “lean.” Is company ABC “leaner” than Toyota? Maybe. But perhaps only in certain areas.

    That’s why we must stick to the “general principles of lean” that you mention. Because when you put anything under the microscopic, you’ll see opportunities to be more lean.

    Too many companies claim to be lean after implementing only a portion of what the Toyota Way outlines. This waters down the lean “brand.” And that’s why Toyota distances themselves from the term, because bad implementations give lean a bad name.

    No one should say they are lean. We should say we are becoming lean, or we’re more lean than we were. Leaner.

  4. Allen Hing
    September 18th, 2012 @ 9:31 pm

    Good One John, Lean is just about finding what works best to return value and reduce waste!
    By creating learning organisations by investing in people to developing a continuous improvement culture! I think the Toyota Way is just best practise for us to learn and adapt, along with anything else which is useful and well thought out! Eg Switch by the Heath Bros has some great ideas on Change. Which leads me to the Art Of War and Book of Changes, they say managing big is the same as small, it’s a matter of organisation, planning, awareness, leadership and training and treating your staff well. thats LEAN!

  5. Business 901 Podcast with Me: Deming’s Management Ideas Today » Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog
    November 30th, 2012 @ 3:19 am

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  6. Deming and Lean: The Disparities and Similarities « The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog
    July 8th, 2013 @ 8:48 am

    […] is a bit tricky to define what exactly “lean manufacturing” means, since there is no one recognized authority. But you can look at Toyota (since lean manufacturing […]

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