The Contradictions That Drive Toyota’s Success

An interesting article in this month’s Harvard Business Review looks at the seeming contradictions at Toyota – The Contradictions That Drive Toyota’s Success by Hirotaka Takeuchi, Emi Osono, and Norihiko Shimizu

Many of Toyota’s goals are purposely vague, allowing employees to channel their energies in different directions and forcing specialists from different functions to collaborate across the rigid silos in which they usually work. For example, Watanabe has said that his goal is to build a car that makes the air cleaner, prevents accidents, makes people healthier and happier when they drive it, and gets you from coast to coast on one tank of gas… Zenji Yasuda, a former Toyota senior managing director, points out the wisdom of painting with broad strokes. “If he makes [the goal] more concrete, employees won’t be able to exercise their full potential. The vague nature of this goal confers freedom to researchers to open new avenues of exploration; procurement to look for new and unknown suppliers who possess needed technology; and sales to consider the next steps needed to sell such products.”

A good explanation of how Toyota avoids the trap of arbitrary numerical goals (Innovation at Toyota).

Toyota’s eagerness to experiment helps it clear the hurdles that stand in the way of achieving near-impossible goals. People test hypotheses and learn from the consequent successes and failures. By encouraging employees to experiment, Toyota moves out of its comfort zone and into uncharted territory.

This is another key point often overlooked. Experimentation is key to gaining knowledge and improving. And they have steadily improved their method of experimentation building on the PDSA/PDCA cycle:

Toyota organizes experiments using strict routines, as is widely known. It has refined Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA), the continuous-improvement process used throughout the business world, into the Toyota Business Practices (TBP) process. The eight-step TBP lays out a path for employees to challenge the status quo: clarify the problem; break down the problem; set a target; analyze the root cause; develop countermeasures; see countermeasures through; monitor both results and processes; and standardize successful processes. Similarly, the A3 report… forces employees to capture the most essential information needed to solve a problem on a single sheet that they can disseminate widely.


A hadn’t heard this guidance Toyota provides promoted employees, before but I like it:

When Toyota promotes employees, it doesn’t praise them. Instead, senior executives deliver a message along these lines: “Congratulations on your promotion. Many others were within a hair’s breadth of being selected. Keep that in mind as you do your job.” This is to instill humility in employees by reminding them that their success is due in part to the efforts of equally accomplished colleagues.

And they conclude the article nicely:

People often ask us, “Tell me one thing I should learn from Toyota.” That misses the point. Emulating Toyota isn’t about copying any one practice; it’s about creating a culture. That takes time.

Very well said. Quite a nice article. If you are not a subscriber you can view it online (without the hassle of paying for it) for only a short time, so go look now. Read their book – Extreme Toyota: Radical Contradictions That Drive Success at the World’s Best Manufacturer

Related: How Toyota Turns Workers Into Problem SolversNo Excessive Senior Executive Pay at ToyotaDeming CompaniesToyota Execution Not Close to Being CopiedToyota IT Overview

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