Why my mother drives a Toyota: The Toyota Production System

My mother just got her new car. After driving a problematic Renault for many years, she decided to go for a Toyota Yaris. That’s an excellent choice for her needs. Despite Toyota’s recent recalls, it continues to deliver the best quality at the best price. The choice of the Toyota  also gives me a good opportunity to eventually write about an essential core of my research: The Toyota Production System—the mother of all XPSs.

toyota yaris

My mother’s new Toyota Yaris

Toyota Production System (= real Lean)

In his book “Toyota Production System” published the first time in Japanese in 1978, Taiici Ohno (1988) described the step-by-step development of Toyota’s super efficient production concept. The TPS was developed incrementally over the years 1945-1975. TPS focuses on producing the highest quality, at the lowest cost, with the shortest lead times, through the elimination of waste in all operations. It takes the ideas of mass production by Fredrick Taylor and Henry Ford a giant step forward, by adding an invariable customer perspective.

The TPS is a holistic system of production principles, often symbolised by the “TPS house” shown below. It all starts with robust processes (“Stability”), that are kept stable by leveling of production plans (“Heijunka”), kept constant by “Standardized work”, and continuously improved (“Kaizen”). The principle of “Just-In-Time” means that each process produces exactly what is needed, with the minimum amount of resources, just when the customer (the next process) needs it. The same importance is given to the principle of “Jidoka”, which explains how people should work together with technology to make the best of both.

The Toyota Production System (Source: lean.org)

The Toyota Production System (Source: lean.org)


Then, in 1990, the famous book “The Machine that changed the World” by Womack, Jones and Roos, described the superiority of TPS over Western automobile production concepts, and introduced the world for the term “Lean production”. Lean is basically just a new name for TPS—better fitted for the American and European audiences. What a success it has became! Today, few scholars will dispute the potential cost savings of successfully implementing a Lean in many type of industries. Lean manufacturing has become the dominant manufacturing paradigm since its introduction and its dissemination continuous to grow also outside the manufacturing industry.

Today, there is an on-going trend for companies to develop their own company-specific production systems (XPSs). Inspired by the TPS, they believe that developing a tailored system for their companies is much better than  relying on consultants selling scattered lean projects (I explained why in an earlier post). Half a century after its development, the TPS has inspired thousands of such XPSs. TPS is the perfect production system, but only for Toyota…

The recent fall and rise of Toyota

However, never a success without a mob: Toyota skeptics has been fed by huge recalls from Toyota the latest years. The first occurred in November 2009, when many new Toyota’s reported uncontrolled acceleration because of floor mats sliding under the gas pedal. Then, in January 2010 another acceleration problem was identified. During the next months, close to 10 million cars were recalled all over the world (!). And it did not end there; Toyota has had several other recalls the last years. In October 2012, for example, 7.5 cars were recalled due to a possible defect in the power window switch (including Yaris).

Many have concluded that this marks the end of Toyota as the world’s manufacturing champion. They’re wrong. There are two characteristics of the recalls: It is the same error on all models and its made by suppliers. The latter fact does, of course, not exempt Toyota from the responsibility—and that’s why there are recalls. Toyota will for sure bounce back—because of, and not despite of, the Toyota Production System.

My mother’s conclusion

The Toyota Yaris does the job. It was the definitive best offer in the small car market. She never wanted the feeling of a Ferrari, she wanted a cost efficient and reliable car that would not turn into a French nightmare like the Renault Mégane she had before. The price was right and the extras exceeded the expectations (and probably the needs). She knows nothing about the Toyota Production System, but she enjoys the effect of it everyday—just like the millions of other Toyota drivers out there.

Further reading