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Lessons from the Toyota Production System

By John P. Collins, CFPIM, CSCP, and Eric P. Jack, PhD, CFPIM, CSCP | January/February 2013 | 23 | 1

Exploring the advantages and challenges of lean

Arguably, one of the most profound evolutions in supply chain and operations management history has been the foundation of the Toyota Production System (TPS). What started as a simple edict to eliminate waste morphed first into a Just-in-Time philosophy and, later, lean manufacturing.
Today it’s with lean principles as a foundation that almost everyone in operations management is introduced to the five whys, five Ss, total productive maintenance, kaizen events, and jidoka. These process improvement tools have become the basis for many businesses trying to heighten their operations. However, as so many of us know, these efforts quite often end in failure.

Why is this the case? Is it because lean approaches don’t work? Or maybe lean works, but frontline employees don’t use the tools properly? Perhaps it is a combination of the two or something else altogether.

One of the best analyses of the TPS is a story by Steven Spear and H. Kent Brown from the Harvard Business Review titled “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System.” In this article, the essence of Toyota’s success is primarily attributed to its reliance on standard processes controlled mainly by direct and visual signals. Interestingly, despite the heavy reliance on these standard systems, the genius of the TPS is the flexibility gained by its reliance on frontline employees, who function as a community of scientists and who can make incremental improvements to the systems under the guidance of qualified mentors. 

The authors also described Toyota’s view of the process improvement methodologies and practices as “countermeasures rather than solutions.” They go on to explain that these are temporary responses to specific problems. Using this explanation, a brief increase in inventory could be viewed as a necessary countermeasure. The business impacts of the devastating tsunami that recently struck Japan underscore the value of such countermeasures.

Others have viewed Toyota’s focus on eliminating waste as, in effect, a translation of Deming’s attention to the elimination of the uncommon sources of process variability. Even so, Deming’s 14 points for management and his focus on systems thinking have been difficult to implement for many businesses, possibly because company leaders look for the quick fix rather than the holistic fix. In cases like this, it is only natural to wonder if people focus too much on getting to a solution and not enough on the root causes of the problem.

The impact of your efforts
One very successful implementation of lean manufacturing occurred in an underperforming aluminum foundry and rolling mill with disjointed processes, underutilized talent, and dysfunctional leadership. Before instituting disciplined processes, the primary focus was on employee training and common goal agreement. By developing a consensus on the current state and a desired future state, processes could be designed and implemented, employees could be trained, and improved quality and productivity realized. A number of lean tools were used as professionals in the manufacturing group transitioned to self-directed work teams to help everyone understand the results of their efforts while giving them the ability to adjust as needed.

It seems clear that both TPS and Deming’s philosophy offer simple approaches that can lead to more successful uses of these lean tools. Some of these strategies are standard processes with visual controls, as well as trained employees who are empowered to use lean principles and tools to develop countermeasures that minimize process variability. 

What approaches does your company use when applying lean principles and tools to improve operations? We would love for you to share your lean journey.

John P. Collins, CFPIM, CSCP, is president of Sustainable Solutions. He may be contacted at jcollins@ssi-spm.com

Eric P. Jack, PhD, CFPIM, CSCP, is associate dean at the University of Alabama–Birmingham. He may be contacted at ejack@uab.edu.

Connect with colleagues and discuss principles and current trends in lean. Join the Lean Operations community on the APICS Supply Chain Channel at supplychainchannel.org.

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