Imitating Toyota Isn’t the Only Path To Excellence 


For decades the Lean Manufacturing community has been telling manufacturing leadership and management that they must either duplicate Toyota or wallow in mediocrity; and that duplication must be comprehensive – imitate Toyota culturally, operationally and strategically. Listen unquestioningly to the words of Ohno and Shingo.  Make no mistake – Toyota is a very successful and well run company, but there is absolutely no evidence that the Toyota way is the only path to success, or that it is even the best way. 

Apple is a far more profitable manufacturer on only slightly higher sales than Toyota (even when you add add in their outsource partner Foxconn’s results); and Samsung is significantly more profitable on lower sales. There are many smaller private companies that do not disclose results that surpass Toyota by this measure, as well.  If success is measured by profits as a percentage of sales, then Emerson Electric and P&G outperform Toyota.  Even within the auto industry, while Toyota is still the big dog in terms of profits, they no longer dominate in terms of quality.  The JD Powers results from 2022 put GM and Ford well ahead of Toyota; and both of them are closing the gap in profitability.  This is not to cast aspersions at Toyota; they are great.  It is only to make the point that mimicking Toyota is hardly the only path to manufacturing success. 

Toyota was a huge disruption to the automobile industry fifty or so years ago, and they have had a great influence on all manufacturers.  It is safe to assume that all of the other companies I mentioned have learned a thing or two from Toyota that has contributed to their success.  It is also safe to assume that they have benefited from sound strategies, wise investments in product and process technologies, and intelligent approaches to globalization.  I’m sure they have their own, obviously successful, approaches to management and culture. 

Infighting among the various operational excellence experts – Lean versus Theory of Constraints versus Six Sigma versus the techies – serves no constructive purpose.  Excellent manufacturing leadership and management draws form all sources, and intelligently sorts out the best and adapts them to the business.  In order to effectively supporter manufacturing, the consultants and others must do the same.  They must be well versed in all sound ideas; and be in a position to help their clients select, adapt and apply in a way that best supports each client’s unique situation.  The question is not Lean or shop floor technology; Lean or TOC; Lean or 6S – it is Lean AND all of those.  The effective consultant will know which and how much of each (and others), and where to apply them for each unique client environment. 

The moral of this story is that being a Lean/Toyota expert is not nearly as valuable as being an Excellence expert with broad knowledge.