You cannot become lean by studying Toyota through your own eyes.  You can only become lean by learning how to look at your own organization through Toyota’s eyes.

Stop.  Reread that sentence and ponder the enormity of it.  It has profound implications on the path you must take to success.

Let me explain:  Like all of us, you are a product of your experiences and education.  You have a set of beliefs about business that you have picked up over the years that are so deep in your thought processes that you don’t actually think much about them at all.  They form your assumptions about the way business is managed, and include ideas concerning the organization, levels of authority and accountability, the roles various people play, the validity of accounting devices such as standard costs and budgets and the significance of a handful of metrics.  They form a fully integrated system of operational practices, financial management, personnel relationships, rules for getting things done, and the culture they create.  The truth of this is evident in how you only need to hear someone’s job title and you immediately know where they fit into the system.  You know their place in the company, their importance and what they most likely do all day.

Toyota – and the other truly lean companies operate according to a completely different system, driven by completely different underlying principles.  It is a fundamental (but all too common) mistake to miss this and to look at Toyota with the assumption that their core ‘system’ is the same as yours, and that the differences between you and Toyota simply a matter of technique.  In fact, you cannot take a Toyota practice in some specific area and simply plug it into your company.  It won’t fit.

Most new business ideas and techniques that have come out over the years are of the simple ‘plug and play’ variety.  Matrix management, for instance, does not really alter the basic principle of top down, command and control management.  It merely attempts to put people under the command and control of multiple bosses, but the underlying philosophy of the business is not challenged.  The same is true of most new information technologies – ERP or CRM, for instance.  They involve pulling an old technique out of a function within the organization and plugging in the new one.  But the basic principles and objectives of the function don’t change.  It is merely deploying a new (and presumably better) technique to pursue the same basic principles.

Toyota EyesToyota’s radical differences are very, very fundamental.  They operate by a completely different economic model.  Their financial definition of goodness and success is different.  They see flow as paramount and do not see the company as set of isolated building blocks the way you do.  How people fit together and their expectations of them are nothing like yours.  They measure and try to improve different things than you do and have an entirely different way of communicating with each other and for setting priorities.

You cannot take a Toyota technique and simply plug it into your organization and expect it to work anymore than you could take the water pump from a Toyota Corolla and try to plug it into your Ford Explorer and expect that to work.  No matter how good the Toyota part may be it simply will not fit into your car’s fully integrated system.

When you seek to become lean by swapping your techniques out and plugging Toyota’s in it simply will not work.  This mistake is all too common.  Kanban is not just another method of factory scheduling to be substituted for your existing push driven MRP.  Kaizen events are not just a better way to manage projects.  5S is not simply a disciplined method for housekeeping.  Kanban is actually a continuous improvement device to be owned by production, rather than scheduling.  Kaizen is a way of thinking – not a project.  5S is the discipline for assuring that standard work for production, kanban, quality control, safety, maintenance and changeover are fully integrated.  These things cannot just be plugged into your old modular theory of business and expected to work.

Jim Womack would often take senior managers out into their own business and attempt to teach them to see it differently – to see the waste and dysfunctionality that they were blind to when looking at the business through their own eyes – things he could see by looking at it through Toyota’s eyes.  To change the organization senior leaders have to learn to do this for themselves, and only then will they be able to clearly envision the path forward to the dizzying heights of the truly lean companies.

Visiting lean companies to observe their techniques is largely a waste of time.  Visiting them to listen intently to try to discern their different way of thinking, however, can be powerful.  While there are certainly many others, reading, re-reading, questioning and doggedly pursuing the following four books until it all makes sense is perhaps the vital launching point for lean:  Jeff Liker’s “Toyota Way”;  Mike Rother’s “Toyota Kata”; Tom Johnson’s “Profit Beyond Measure” and Jon Miller and Mike Wroblewski’s “Creating a Kaizen Culture”.  If you can read and understand these books – not as an extension of what you are currently doing but as a replacement for your entire concept of business – you will be able to see your business as Toyota would see it.  It may take years to fully understand them, but when you do the path forward will be crystal clear.