Front-line Improvement and the Toyota Production System

For at least 25 years I have worked to both understand and to help apply the basic principles of continuous improvement as developed within the Toyota Production System. Perhaps one aspect that executives and managers at all levels often have a hard time grasping is that sustainable improvement is only possible with a frontline staff that is able improve their work processes as well as receive, understand and execute larger system changes that are deployed from senior management. Many times “frontline improvement” is associated with feel-good exercises that are mainly about “employee engagement” and other platitudes as compared to the real work of improving an organization’s productivity and competitiveness that is the purview of senior management.

This article by Brad Power does a good job of conveying the essence of what needs to happen at the frontline of any organization to drive strategic change. It addresses most of the key elements of managing with lean principles (or a lean management system).

Toyota is famous for its Toyota Production System, an approach that effectively engages front-line workers in improving their work. As I argued in my last post, “pulling” improvement from the front line is critical to continually improve operations, and Toyota does it very well. Companies that “push” work improvements from the top usually generate tepid front-line enthusiasm. Despite some missteps in the last couple of years, Toyota’s ascent to the top of the auto industry has been for one reason: quality. And a big reason for its unrivaled quality is worker participation in process improvement. A platitude? Hardly. The company implements an average of nine ideas per employee per year, as described in Chuck Yorke and Norman Bodek’s book All You Gotta Do Is Ask.

How does Toyota do it? There are three essential elements: context, management processes, and people.

The context is crucial: Constant improvement is part of everyone’s job description. Toyota’s culture encourages front-line workers to suggest local improvements and help make them. Management has established a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the workforce. Managers and workers can make improvement part of their jobs without fear because streamlining work won’t eliminate their jobs. Workers make suggestions out of a sense of pride in improving work conditions, and out of a sense of togetherness. Toyota nurtures camaraderie through lots of group bonding activities. In most cases, the firm rewards the team that came up with the improvement, not the individual. Unlike most companies I’ve seen, Toyota doesn’t separate top management from the field with suggestion boxes. Senior managers go to the front line and listen, which shows respect to those far from the executive suite. That energizes workers.

How work improvements work their way up the organization chart isn’t happenstance. Toyota has explicit management processes for it. Toyota defines standard procedures for how to execute work as a baseline for improvement and to ensure organizational goals are implanted in the front lines, where the real work of the organization takes place. When front-line workers spot a work problem, they have a clear way to suggest improvements. Their idea goes through a quality circle of peer workers, which then must be approved by their manager. Upper-level managers view the ideas, then take action. This is a bottom-up, not top down, system.

The last reason this works at Toyota is because of the roles and skills of the people. Front-line workers know the true meaning and value of each standard procedure — not only in theory. They have the skills and knowledge to solve problems and an end-to-end process perspective. The supervisors are pivotal in developing these competencies. They check and confirm that the standard procedures have been put in place and that workers are following them exactly. Supervisors can improve processes through coaching, questioning (not ordering), and making front-line workers think and take responsibility. Managers (supervisors, managers, directors, and above) motivate workers by meeting with them to communicate the corporate vision.

Would Toyota’s approach work at your organization? Not easily.

Most organizations I’ve seen would find Toyota’s approach difficult to digest. Their context doesn’t allow work improvement to be part of everyone’s job. The workers are too busy doing the day-to-day work, so they don’t have the time to suggest improvements. Managers are skeptical that workers will do what’s best for the company and not just for them. That attitude obstructs any serious initiative to solicit worker feedback. The mindset is that managers have all the answers and their jobs are to dictate them — not to learn from workers. These beliefs run very deep in most organizations I’ve seen. They are not easily changed.

The management processes of these companies don’t support bottom-up improvement. Work isn’t standardized (standards may be written down, but aren’t followed consistently), and formal suggestion systems (e.g., quality circles) are rare.

Lastly, the roles and skills of the people aren’t conducive to change coming from the bottom of the hierarchy. Supervisors don’t make sure workers follow consistent standards. They dole out work but don’t have time or expectations that they should improve the way the work is done. They move frequently to new assignments, and they manage by the numbers, not by the process. Without knowledge of the work, they can’t coach effectively. They don’t know what the optimal process is. They can’t ask probing questions. They don’t have the confidence to say they don’t know; they got to where they are because they had the answers.

Cambridge Ontario Toyota Plant September 2010

Cambridge Ontario Toyota Plant September 2010

2 Comments on “Front-line Improvement and the Toyota Production System”

  1. JP says:

    Great thought provoking article! I am considering how to integrate the continuous improvement in the job description and performance evaluation of clients staff and managers.


  2. […] For at least 25 years I have worked to both understand and to help apply the basic principles of continuous improvement as developed within the Toyota Production System. Perhaps one aspect that exe…  […]

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