One might expect Ohno’s book to be highly technical; after all he is one of the key architects and champions of the Toyota Production System and creator of Toyota’s internal institutions that perpetuate “the basic thinking” that is essential to Toyota’s corporate identify and competitive success. In fact, Ohno’s writing is as much philosophical as practical, explaining what Toyota does and why it does it, with the why not a technical or economic rationale but a humanistic one.
What's the problem with waste, overproduction as an example? Not primarily the carrying cost of the inventory, the misuse of machinery. It’s that a human being has been asked to do something for which there is no immediate need and consequently no opportunity to be appreciated. The opportunity we all have to do things of value for someone else has been squandered.
Similarly, why is jidoka so critical (jidoka: autonomation—i.e., autonomatic self regulation or ‘automation with a human touch’) in the Toyota system? Because without jidoka, people have to monitor machines rather than having machines serve as useful tools to extend the capacity of people to be creative and productive.
I remember one of Ohno’s students (and a senior TPS master at the time) explaining the rationale of the Just in Time pull system. He said that in normal production an associate is emptying a pile of inputs and building a pile of outputs. With Just in Time, the same associate, no matter where he or she is in the supply chain knows that they’re being asked to do another cycle of work because someone appreciated the last cycle.
It was after spending time with Ohno’s book that it hit me, re igniting some neurons still informed by living in Japan, apprenticing at Toyota, and even studying karate for a (very) short period.
Japan is a society characterized by dō (道), “the way” of something. One doesn’t do technique just for the sake of the technique. Doing the technique repeatedly until it becomes natural and right is a way to understand “the way.” The technique is meant to reveal beliefs, character traits, and philosophy that’s behind it. It’s not just kendō (the way of the sword), judō (the gentle way) or karatedō, the way of the open hand. Flower arranging, one of Japan’s classic art forms is kadō, the way of flowers, like the tea ceremony is chadō. For all of these, the act is more than the act, the technique is more than the technique.
I realized that is why Ohno’s book reads as much as philosophy as technique. For him, Just in Time and TPS are not algorithmic, like linear programming. TPS is a dō, and the technique doesn’t stand alone nor should it be explained in isolation. It’s perhaps because the Toyota Production System is a dō within Toyota (whether explicitly stated or tactically appreciated), that the system depends historically on so much mentor-protege engagement.
I remember my years as a student of Hajime Õhba, of Toyota’s Supplier Support Center.
"Try this task.
"Try again. Try again. Try again. Try again.
<punctuated by many a "don’t think, do”>
"It’s not wrong.
"Let’s try the next task.”
Anyway, back to praising Professor Liker’s book (yes, judging the book by the cover, but in this case flatteringly and accurately), what a perfect title, The Toyota Way, the Toyota dō. Toyota people think (and rightfully so), that they’re stewards of a great invention in managerial practice, one that does deliver great value by tapping deeply into the creative potential of people. For them, it’s “the way,” so the title of the book is quite fitting.
(In a separate note, I guess I owe a similar unpacking on Mike Rother's title Toyota Kata, lot's of wisdom in that title choice too.)