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Management Lessons from Taiichi Ohno: Review

When I first saw “Toyota Production System” and “creator” on this book cover, I became extremely excited. Why? Because I have heard much about TPS (called Lean Management in North America) and now I was going straight to the source. However, when I started reading the introduction I realized that the book was written by a Japanese individual (the author) who served as a protege under Taiichi Ohno. This book was translated into English by another individual. I admit my heart sank slightly, but after finishing the book my spirits lifted up. Here’s what I learned:

The Toyota Production System took over 30 years for Taiichi Ohno to implement. Sometimes, I fall prey to glacial progress frustration syndrome (that’s how I nicely refer to it). Why does everyone express frustration towards slow progress and contribute to the problem simultaneously? However, for one man to teach concepts that sound simple (preserve flow, work on one thing, stop the assembly line if one stage falls behind, etc) over the course of three decades revealed that changing culture is a long process. This has helped me breathe a little better.

Focusing on one thing often reveals areas lacking innovation. One example I read about involved changing the switch that a worker uses to turn on a machine. Since I lack a manufacturing background, I will describe everything as a machine and process. This switch on the machine was located in a different place from where the person usually worked, so he had to walk back and forth and exert a significant amount of effort to turn the switch on. When Ohno came by, he challenged the design team to identify a better solution to make the switch easier to use. This ended up increasing the worker’s productivity by 10%, and made him less tired. Wow. A simple fix to a switch can lead to that kind of improvement! In another example, one machine produced parts in multiple batches. The workers used the machine like this because it took an hour to stop the machine and reconfigure it for the next part of the process, so they would produce a few batches of a product so they would only wait an hour for several batches instead of an hour for each batch. They thought this would save them time. However, this ran counter to Ohno’s just in time (JIT) principles of only producing what is necessary. He told them they needed to only produce one batch at a time and moved another part of the process out of this stage. Now, since workers had less to do, they worked with the design team and arrived at a solution that shaved 10 minutes off of the cycle time for changing the machine parts. The team would never have considered this principle had they been left to produce multiple batches at a time.

Team lead and manager roles worked together but with different goals. In manufacturing, adhering to a standard is critical for ensuring consistency and quality. However, workers should feel empowered to make the process better. The author explained that it is a manager’s job to enforce the standard. The manager does not work in the process, but oversees it, so ensuring quality is key. However, the team lead – an experienced worker on the line – should always be trying to break and improve the standard. The manager cannot do this because the manager does not work on the line. The team lead has the knowledge and expertise to identify optimizations. When I first read this I thought it seemed weird that two leaders on a team would have conflicting goals, but once the team lead identified a better standard, the manager enforced the new standard. So these two roles ended up complimenting each other.

When you have achieved an optimal state of flow, remove the best person off the team. Why? Because the best person can then move to another part of the process and spread the efficiency there! I think most companies actually practice this principle. In my experience, if you are a good developer you are put to use not developing but helping others develop. I am not sure if this is the best approach in many situations.

Workers should feel empowered to stop the line if safety becomes a concern. If a worker falls behind in their part of the process, management should be clear that it is okay to stop the line and fix one part of the stage instead of building a bottleneck of parts somewhere along the process. While stopping can cost thousands of dollars, this is preferred over uncontrolled inventory costs. In addition, it allows management to see what parts of the process need improvement.

Lean management sounds great in theory but often antithetical to our nature. One point that has always bugged is why we think concepts like this are cool but then when the time to apply said principles arrives, we falter. Lean management requires high levels of discipline to do less work instead of more. Protocols and prizes should encourage efficiency, not output. Models centered around flow take time and patience, but the numbers back the TPS method in far favorable terms than the alternatives.

If you do not have a manufacturing background, then this book will be a hard read. I spent much time looking up terms or just accepting unknown references as manufacturing jargon. However, the psychological aspects interested me, and I learned many new things. I think the culture played a significant role in this book. Taiichi Ohno never implemented TPS principles outside of what he was in control over. In America, we enjoy the freedom to share cross-department knowledge. Other than these elements, I recommend reading this book to see Lean Management come from as close to the source as possible.