The Winners Wrote the History Books of the Toyota Production System

This is part 1 of a larger series on “The Toyota Way” where I compare the culture of Toyota with the culture of Japan to see what about Toyota's culture is unique.

History (Why the Japanese “Own” Lean)

“The Toyota Way” begins by explaining the history of Toyota’s rise. Toyota's production ideology began taking-off in the late 1940’s in post war Japan*. The book acknowledges this as a difficult time in history and explains that it is miraculous how Toyota ultimately outperforms companies in the U.S. Miraculous indeed. However, I believe there is a misstep. The phrasing in the book makes Toyota’s successful ideologies seem as though it was developed in spite of the post war economic conditions. I would argue that they were developed because of the economic conditions. Additionally, these economic conditions weren’t exclusive to Toyota.

Not Exclusive to Toyota

During the American occupation, commanding general Douglas MacArthur is quoted communicating to Washington saying"Starvation breeds mass unrest, disorder and violence, Give me bread or give me bullets." It's clear that the priority wasn’t about maximizing profits for a promotion. If you weren’t efficient, someone was going to die. In fact, it is said that Yoshitada Yamaguchi, a Tokyo district court judge, died of starvation by only eating government rations and refusing food from the black market.

The development of lean production was existential.

This isn’t a motivational poster. Be efficient or literally die.

I often hear people gripe and confused. “The Japanese don’t OWN lean” “Why is lean associated with Japan?”

This is why. Because in the late 1940’s the entire population of Japan was subjugated to a production nightmare where death by starvation was a reality.


Back to “The Toyota Way”. The book refers to a series of sacrifices made by the leadership and employees of Toyota during the post war hardships. Managers take voluntary pay cuts, employees take a 10% cut in pay, 1600 employees “retire” voluntarily and the CEO accepts responsibility for his failings and resigns. The book doesn’t directly implicate this as exclusively “Toyota” but omits mentioning that this is something that happens in Japanese companies. CEO resignation and voluntary pay cuts happen with some regularity in Japan. Recently, the CEOs of two major Japanese companies Dentsu and 7-11 resigned after shameful events which failed their employees. This happens with much greater occurrence in Japan than in other countries. This is because of the social obligation and virtues that Japanese children are socialized with. As adults, Japanese CEOs and employees listen to deep inner promptings and feel the need to make whatever personal sacrifice necessary to save the group.

Adaptation of Concepts

Toyota studying Ford’s “Today Tomorrow” by Ford and adapting American manufacturing concepts from Deming is historically speaking also very Japanese. While seeming fairly closed to “outsiders” Japan has regularly adapted new ideas to suit their objectives. A key word here is "adapt" rather than "adopt". This has happened in consumer electronics (Sony, Panasonic, etc.), steel and almost every other industry. Harmoniously adapting new ideas rather than rejecting them is hidden behind the seemingly infinite structure and bureaucracy of Japanese organizations.

Artifact of Japanese Adaptation

Artifact of Japanese Adaptation

So What About Toyota?

There are three concepts in Part One of “The Toyota Way” which stick out as distinctly Toyota or somewhat un-Japanese.

  1. One Piece Flow

I believe prior to its inception the concept of one piece flow was counter-intuitive and may have otherwise remained undiscovered by those exposed to the same economic hardships of post-war Japan. I believe this is a concept which was truly revolutionary on the part of Toyota. Furthermore, continued commitment to the concept in times of economic prosperity is a testament to the culture of Toyota that brings it further than “just a set of tools”.

  1. Documentation

Explicit documentation of the tools, wastes, and methods is one of the things that has given Toyota an edge in educating its employees. However, this runs counter to the way learning takes place in most Japanese organizations. Typically, knowledge in Japanese organizations is learned through experience and is deeply internalized. Explicitly teaching deeper concepts to employees may seem obvious to western cultures but is somewhat rare in Japan (particularly in the mid 20th century).

  1. “No Compromises”

No great company has gotten anywhere without a relentless push forward. In this aspect Toyota is in rarified air. The exceptionalism that Toyota has pushed for isn’t exclusively or fundamentally Japanese or American. It’s why many people continue to study its inner workings and seek to be influenced by it.

Course 1

Nipponica offers an online course which teaches Japanese cultural basics. It will allow you to avoid critical errors in interactions with Japanese business partners and provide a lens through which to interpret Japanese behaviors. This lens would allow you to develop insightful conclusions about Japan as I have done above. Read more HERE

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*Toyota’s innovation started around the turn of the century with Sakichi Toyoda but in popular opinion the development into a “system” didn’t take place until after WWII.

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