The "Toyota Way" can be summarized through the two pillars that support it:

  • Continuous improvement, and
  • Respect for people.

  • Continuous improvement defines Toyota's culture--always challenge the status quo and look for system improvements. More important than the actual improvements that individuals contribute, the true value of continuous improvement is in creating an atmosphere of continuous learning and an environment that not only accepts, but actually embraces, change. Such an environment can only be created where there is respect for people--thus, the second pillar of the Toyota Way. Toyota demonstrates this respect by providing employment security and seeking to engage team members through active participation in improving the system. As managers, we must take the responsibility for developing and nurturing mutual trust and understanding among all team members. Toyota believes that management's main role is to motivate their group toward a common goal and remove any obstacles to achieving those goals. Managers need to constantly reinforce the principle that quality is everyone's responsibility throughout the organization. Quality for the customer drives your value proposition, therefore there is no compromising quality, because adding value for the customer keeps the company (department) operating so everyone can continue to be part of the company (department).

    In the previous article I introduced the principles of TPS, including those directly related to creating a learning organization:

    • Principle 9. Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others.
    • Principle 10. Develop exceptional people and teams who follow your company's philosophy.
    • Principle 11. Respect your extended network of partners and suppliers by challenging them and helping them improve.
    • Principle 12. Go and see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation.
    • Principle 13. Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options; implement decisions rapidly.
    • Principle 14. Become a learning organization through relentless reflection and continuous improvement.

    The foundation of TPS is standardization followed by innovation, which gets translated into new standards. Therefore it is not enough for team members to come up with innovative ways to do things, as continuous improvement can only be practiced in a stable and standardized environment. In order to become a learning organization, the new way must be standardized and practiced across the organization until a better way is discovered. You must have strong leaders, people and suppliers who understand and believe in the philosophy--principles 9, 10, 11 and 12--to make this a reality requires a stable dedicated team.

    The Toyota Way involves the company learning from its mistakes, determining the root cause of problems, providing effective countermeasures, empowering people to implement those measures, and having a process for transferring the new knowledge to the right people to make it part of the company's repertoire of understanding and behavior--principles 13 and 14. Possibly the most important aspect in Toyota's relentless application of continuous improvement is that it results in thousands of little lessons learned. In addition, Toyota views errors as opportunities for learning. Rather than blaming individuals, the organization takes corrective actions and distributes knowledge about each experience broadly. Adopting this bottom-up philosophy will likely reduce turnover and add to stability, because participation in process improvement can be highly rewarding to the individual, as they are involved and their opinion matters.

    By going through lengthy and thorough information gathering and analysis in decision making, Toyota (1) uncovers all the facts that, if not considered, could lead to a great deal of pain and backtracking further down the road and (2) gets all the parties on board and supporting the decision so any resistance is worked out before implementing anything. The cost of addressing this resistance when implementation begins is likely to be many times the cost of addressing it in the planning stage.

    Ultimately, the core of continuous learning is an attitude and way of thinking by all team members. It must include an attitude of self-reflection and even self-criticism as well as a burning desire to improve. But to get everyone involved in continuous improvement in a way that leads to measurable improvements requires aligned goals and objectives and the constant measurement of progress toward those objectives. The important insight here is that simply setting specific, measurable, challenging goals and then measuring progress is highly motivating even when there is no tangible reward associated with success. It's approached like a game or sport and can actually be fun--which is something we can all appreciate and practice.