Learning to Lead at Toyota

  • Spear S
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Many companies have tried to copy Toyota's famous production system--but without success. Why? Part of the reason, says the author, is that imitators fail to recognize the underlying principles of the Toyota Production System (TPS), focusing instead on specific tools and practices. This article tells the other part of the story. Building on a previous HBR article, "Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System," Spear explains how Toyota inculcates managers with TPS principles. He describes the training of a star recruit--a talented young American destined for a high-level position at one of Toyota's U.S. plants. Rich in detail, the story offers four basic lessons for any company wishing to train its managers to apply Toyota's system: There's no substitute for direct observation. Toyota employees are encouraged to observe failures as they occur--for example, by sitting next to a machine on the assembly line and waiting and watching for any problems. Proposed changes should always be structured as experiments. Employees embed explicit and testable assumptions in the analysis of their work. That allows them to examine the gaps between predicted and actual results. Workers and managers should experiment as frequently as possible. The company teaches employees at all levels to achieve continuous improvement through quick, simple experiments rather than through lengthy, complex ones. Managers should coach, not fix. Toyota managers act as enablers, directing employees but not telling them where to find opportunities for improvements. Rather than undergo a brief period of cursory walk-throughs, orientations, and introductions as incoming fast-track executives at most companies might, the executive in this story learned TPS the long, hard way--by practicing it, which is how Toyota trains any new employee, regardless of rank or function.

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  • Steven J. Spear

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