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Tripp Babbitt

Six Sigma

A Question of Perspective

Why copying Toyota is a bad idea

Published: Thursday, August 15, 2013 - 10:29


ometimes it’s necessary for a person to offer up views that seem to be an affront. Because these views often challenge the status quo, people’s reactions can be mixed. Some will consider the person a heretic for expressing them, and others will wonder why anyone would say such a thing. The latter group is the one worth convincing, because the people who comprise it are curious by nature and interested in the truth.

So at the risk of affronting, I believe there’s too important a story to be ignored when it comes to Japan: Copying Toyota is a bad idea. Not because I say so, but because if we look at the foundational elements of Japanese manufacturing, we find the work of W. Edwards Deming. Many in the lean community agree that without Deming, there would have been no Taiichi Ohno or Toyota Production System (TPS). The fact that Toyota achieved a set of results is really of no use to another company, even one in a similar industry, unless that company understands how Toyota did it and how that applies to the company’s own issues.

To achieve this it’s important to understand the prevailing American manufacturing perspective. It’s based on Frederick Winslow Taylor’s concept of productivity improvement, known as scientific management, which was basically a top-down approach. We need to compare this to Deming’s concept of productivity, which is a more holistic approach. Otherwise, as management authority Russel Ackhoff says, you “do the wrong thing, righter.” Deming likewise warned that “to copy an example of success without the aid of a theory, may lead to a disaster.” Toyota has become just this type of benchmark study.

However, the matter goes well beyond Toyota.  As I described in my June column, “Revisiting Taylorism at the Watertown Arsenal,” the problems we face in service and manufacturing are rooted in Taylorism. I believe more specificity is needed to change folks’ perspective. We owe it to ourselves, and the broader community, to be life-long learners rather than gurus and experts. To do this we must study what has already been learned and the systems involved, theorize, observe, learn some more, and repeat. In essence, this is the framework for plan-do-study-act (PDSA).

We also need to understand that no amount of rational conversation or evidence can sway the mind. Changing a perspective is an individual thing gained through curiosity.

One other interesting and ironic note: When Deming became recognized for his achievement and was at his pinnacle of success during the 1970s and 1980s quality movement, I remember many World War II veterans being offended that we would want to follow the teachings of a man who helped Japan. Today, we use Japanese terms to describe improvement tools. An interesting shift during the past couple of decades.

In the end, we have to think about what it takes to express our ideas about improvement. Are we prepared to affront others? Are we flexible in considering different perspectives? Sometimes our convictions about quality run the risk of being so sanctimonious that they sound stupid. We should challenge each other to learn and offer more scope for the curious.

Speaking at the dConstruct 2012 conference in Brighton, UK, science historian James Burke told the following story:

“Apparently, somebody once went up to [Ludwig] Wittgenstein and remarked what a bunch of morons we Europeans must have been 900 years ago before Copernicus told us how the solar system worked... and to have thought what we were seeing up there was the sun going round the earth, when as anybody knows, the earth goes round the sun, and you don’t have to be Einstein to get that. To which Wittgenstein is said to have replied, as philosophers often will, ‘Yeah, yeah. But I wonder what it would’ve looked like up there if the sun had been going round the earth.’ The point being, of course, it would’ve looked exactly the same. What he was saying was that, in any given circumstance, you see what your version of things at the time tells you you’re seeing. If you’re an astronomer, and the contemporary paradigm says the universe is made of omelets, you build instruments to search for traces of intergalactic egg. And if you don’t find any: no problem. Instrument failure.”


About The Author

Tripp Babbitt’s picture

Tripp Babbitt

Tripp Babbitt is a service design architect who helps organizations discover a better way to improve thier service. His 95 Method is about giving organizations a method to try out different design ideas leading to better service.  Start by downloading his free ebook or book an on-site workshop. Babbitt can be reached at tripp@newsystemsthinking.com. Reach him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TriBabbitt or LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/trippbabbitt



Copying Toyota?

There surely are good reasons why copying Toyota is a bad idea. Data from Toyota’s annual reports show that the company’s production days of inventory have doubled in the past 20 years—from 17 to 36 days’ supply. In more detail: Toyota’s finished goods and work in process have nearly doubled, and purchased materials have more than tripled. Once hailed as the world’s paragon of lean, Toyota looks in that regard to have slipped to about average among car-makers.

That kind of slippage can have devastating effects on a company’s quality efforts, because a lean-management system is at the same time a quality-management system: The primary beneficial result of lean is reducing waiting times all along the value chains. When wait times plunge, defects and nonconformities show up quickly, before (1) they can multiply into quality disasters, such as massive recalls, and (2) while the root causes may still be active and traceable by the quality-engineering sleuths.


Looking at this linkage in reverse, a quality-management system serves at the same time as a lean-management system: Lean is intolerant of wait-time-consuming interruptions, scrap, and rework, and of the high variability in response times that accompany quality incidents and disasters. As Mr. Babbitt alludes to, the works of Dr. Deming had to be woven into the other lean practices.

That knife-and-fork linkage between quality and lean—aka, TPS and JIT—has long been well known and appreciated, and was explained well in the 1982 book, Japanese Manufacturing Techniques. For most of the 1980s it was common in related writings and presentation to find that linkage in the acronym, JIT/TQC (just-in-time/total quality control).

Good article

Good article Tripp.  You make some excellent points.

I particularly like your position that we "owe it to ourselves, and the broader community, to be life-long learners rather than gurus and experts".  Yes indeed!

Is Sun really UP there?

We "see" the Sun is up but it's not astronomically so. It's just the same with many perspectives: temptations to copy demigods are always very strong, including a possibly shameful counterstream swimming. It goes back to school days, when copying appeared to be the easiest way to get rid of heavy burdens: if school means the word applicable to fish, let's then copy up and down, right and left. If schooling means instead to teach and learn, copying is simply out of the question.  

Ohno quote

There's an interesting quote from Taiichi Ohno in "Taiichi Ohno's Workplace Management," which I was re-reading today...

"You are a fool if you do what I say. You are a greater fool if you don't do as I say. You should think for yourself and come up with better ideas than mine."

The best examples of Lean in healthcare are examples where leaders and organizations learned, but did not blindly copy. Sami Bahri DDS (the "lean dentist") read Deming, Shingo, Ohno, etc. and had to figure this out himself, rather than copying some other dentist.

ThedaCare is the first to say "don't directly copy what we do."

We can learn from others, run our own experiments to see what works, and keep improving to make it better than even Ohno or Shingo would have imagined.

I also wrote about this... in 2010, in my blog post: 

Don’t Copy: There Is No “Instant Pudding”