Thursday, February 15, 2007

Struggling to maintain the Toyota Way

The last time that American auto makers were in this much trouble, their managers flocked to Japan to learn the quality secrets of Toyota. Oddly, instead of raising the drawbridge before the invading horde, the Japanese opened their plant doors wide and showed their competitors exactly how they were able to produce high quality vehicles at reasonable prices.

Why were the Japanese so obliging? I think it's because they realized that successfully copying the Toyota Production System required fundamental cultural and behavioral changes that the American car companies and their employees might never accept.

This morning, Toyota is the subject of a very interesting article in the New York Times. The company is now the second largest car maker in the world and is threatening to overtake GM. It is a corporate giant with plants around world...and guess what? Now, it's having problems transplanting its own system in some of the countries in which it operates.

The Times article suggests that this is because the "Toyota Way" has only recently been codified. Now, NYT reports, Toyota is writing it up and teaching it in its corporate university in order to ensure that its managers and workers around the world learn it. (In fact, that's not really accurate -- the tenets and methods of the Toyota system are well known and have been available to anyone who wants to learn them for going on 20 years. Check out titles originally published in Japan and translated by Productivity Press, like this one.)

I think the shoe is now on the other foot. The challenge that Toyota is confronting, just like our auto makers did in the late 80s and early 90s, is one of changing the mindsets and behaviors of the people -- execs, managers, workers, suppliers -- who make up their global production system.

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