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I want to start out with stating I am a master of nothing and a student of everything. I enjoy being part of several discussion groups around the concepts of “Lean Manufacturing” and have improved my skills not necessarily from the “System” being used but rather the thoughts and ideas of the people using them. Just for fun I want to share my thoughts and ideas on each of the three “System’s” listed above.
Toyota Production System
In my view, TPS is the ultimate continuous improvement system ever developed. Out of the three, I would not even refer to it as a system but rather a culture. Much like most major achievements in manufacturing, TPS was developed out of necessity rather than ingenuity. If I had to humbly give a definition of what I think TPS is, I would refer to it as: A unified culture of diverse people utilizing a standard process of problem solving handed down and improved upon through generations in order to improve processes on a daily basis. Here is how I have come up with that definition.
When referring to the unified culture, Toyota’s success has been in creating a culture within their organization that crosses the entire organization. I love the analogies of “red hats” and “blue hats”. It is very effective in explaining other companies issues with cross-company improvements and thinking. In the companies that I have worked for you can always feel an us vs. them attitude which does absolutely nothing positive for the company. I have never worked at Toyota, but from my extensive reading and researching of them I have always gotten the impression that everyone wears the same color hats. It seems that’s just the way it is. It is part of it’s culture. That is where the diverse people come in. It doesn’t matter whether you are an engineer, a shop rat, a model maker or a salesperson your job is to continually improve the processes and ultimately the company.
The standard process of problem solving is probably the most mistaken concept of TPS in American companies. When I reflect back to my learning, I can’t help but laugh at the memories of being able to tell which chapter of which book our managers were reading by the directions they were handing down to the supervisors. When they read about PDCA’s, we instantly had to go out and write five PDCA’s a week to meet our performance plans. When they read the chapter on standard work, our focus instantly shifted to writing 100’s of standard work sheets throughout the shop. Needless to say we killed a lot of trees but we never accomplished much! The best phrase I recently read was in reference to the Toyota Kata. It is an ingrained method for training and mentoring individuals at Toyota. In the US, we often look for right or wrong answers. At Toyota, it appears they are more focused on the learning of the individual. This Kata, is the foundation of the continuous improvement process at Toyota. By ensuring that all employees learn it, know it and practice it, they ensure continual improvement in all of their processes.
The fact that this culture is handed down and improved upon through generations is what ultimately lets Toyota succeed and other companies struggle and fail with implementation. Since Toyota is improving processes on a daily basis, we are continually falling further behind simply trying to learn what they have already figured out. We tend to have tunnel vision in simply trying to figure out what they have done rather than focusing on the problems that we should be trying to solve.
The Toyota Production System is really rather simple to me: go see the problem first hand, identify the root cause of the problem, develop the solution to the problem, reset the standard for the process and follow-up to ensure that you have truly eliminated the problem. When you finish with that, start the next one. I am not avoiding the fact that Toyota has created hundred’s of tools to help this process. I simply feel that these tools are simply tools to help enhance the system. Just because you use all the tools of TPS doesn’t make you successful and simply because you are not using all the tools available from Toyota doesn’t make you a failure. The measure of true success with TPS is the training, development and advancement of your employees problem solving skills. The more proficient at problem solving your employees are, the more successful your company will be.
I really don’t know a lot about TPS and I know even less about Six Sigma. This is what I feel I know about it. It is developed for implementation within an engineering minded culture. It truly utilizes facts and data to determine what is the best solution to utilize. Where TPS is focused on the advancement of employees problem solving skills, Six Sigma is focused on having a standard way of identifying problems and what course of action should be utilized. Let there be no doubt that Six Sigma is a highly successful system for problem solving, but you have to have a certain mindset in order to utilize it. The level of understanding required for this shows the great differences between Six Sigma and TPS.
Lately, there has been a lot of focus on your “certification” level in Six Sigma. There are multiple “belts” all the way up to a Master Black Belt. On the other hand, TPS has no certifications because you can never be a “Master” of continuous improvement. This is very important to understand when contemplating the “system” you want to implement. In order to be successful in Six Sigma, you must be able to “master” numbers and data. It is based on extremely complex math equations that only certain people can do. It is also limited to only those individuals that can afford the schooling and training. Sure, companies can train employees but let’s be realistic. When experiencing economic recessions training is the first thing to go. Also, no matter how much training you give some people, they would never be able to succeed in the Six Sigma world. TPS is universal. It can be taught to anyone and the premise of the system is very simplistic.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not a “hater” or against Six Sigma. I just feel it is extremely limited on who can utilize it and therefore difficult to implement company wide. This leads to needing experts within your organization which limits and stifles the creativity and ideas of all employees. Hey, maybe that is why we need red hats and blue hats! When utilizing Six Sigma, you are only going to be able to improve based on what the experts say rather than by everyone contributing.
In my opinion and only my opinion, I think it would be impossible to define Lean Manufacturing. It has become a universal title for whatever program a company is utilizing for improvement. The improvement could be in a multitude of areas: safety, cost, quality, margin, stock price, sales, through put, the list goes on and on. My studies and research has brought me to the conclusion that Lean Manufacturing is an American term that has been bastardized by anyone that has spoken it. To me, what it lacks is a standard or benchmark to measure against. When discussing Lean Manufacturing it always encompasses the concept of improvement but the definition of the improvement is open to those in charge. In contrast TPS is more focused on the process of problem solving rather than the actual change that takes place. This is why Toyota has left most of us behind shaking our heads wondering where we went wrong.