Lessons from experimenting with Toyota TPS at the Gemba

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I’ve been privileged to live and sense the Toyota Gemba many times. At the Toyota Gemba, TPS (Toyota Production System) is the way people ‘think and act’ – in all aspects of the business. Its objective is to meet evolving customer needs by increasingly developing capable and engaged people. 


By practicing and reflecting with senseis, I learned that TPS embodies several key elements, which, from my point of view, have not always been addressed clearly enough:


  • The customer is boss. You understand and live their real needs and create flow through the entire value-driven network in meeting these needs. Never pass along a defect. You build in quality. Change as your customer changes. You eliminate whatever your customer is not willing to pay for: waste. 

  • Mental safety. In order to flow value to the customer, Toyota is obsessed with creating safe work environments, where jobs add value, are intellectually challenging, and everyone feels ‘mentally safe’ (i. e. is not afraid to ask for help or to surface problems when needed). 

  • Decisions are made at the Gemba. This is where all value is added. Through a visual workplace results and problems are quickly exposed and root causes identified. It is expected that one goes to ‘the source’ to collect the facts that leads to  the right decisions and build consensus. Making decisions just in the meeting room, away from the facts that provide the actual data, is a lack of respect to your customers and your people and finally a dangerous practice since it can end up in waste and value destruction.

  • Top Management’s role is to develop scientific thinking and problem-solving skills of their people. Together with their associates, leadership must create a clear image of the ideal state and engage everyone in shaping this ideal state by learning in repeated PDCA-SDCA cycles. This requires leaders to deeply respect the front-line members and understand the processes which will only work if they spend the majority of their day ‘on the floor’, at the Gemba. 


Learning transfer from TPS at Toyota´s Gemba to other companies


After many mistakes, I finally learned that it all starts with primarily focusing on achieving the ideal of continuous flow. For this journey, Kanban systems are key. Kanban are learning systems that help teams at all levels discover how to better «respond» to their customer.


The goal of continuously learning with Kanban is to achieve the entire value-creation process to be «pulled» based on what the real customer orders are and this process to happen without disruption and minimum (ideally 0) inventory.


Of course, it needs to happen end-to-end, from customers to suppliers since they are part of this never-ending process.



Following this bedrock principle of always striving for continuous flow, when experimenting with TPS out of Toyota, I had several fundamental and easy to share learnings which I thought might spark some reflection in those embarked in this journey:


  • If you are powering this principle by the management, you constantly need strong support from all your colleagues. For example, to make this support real, every day I used to do a Gemba walk together with my leadership team mates to see and understand what was going on, what was being learned to make value flow and to build problem solving skills as well as scientific thinking in our associates. If you want to build a learning organization, you can’t just go to the Gemba to be seen and take a look at the metrics. You must go see and help your people to build problem solving muscle, every single day.
  • The role of leadership needs to change dramatically from commanding, controlling and consuming Excel reports to becoming a real coach for problem solving capabilities. Starting with really understanding both the work of the people at your company and what challenges they face every day, this role continues with being able to understand customer needs as well as which problems are being encountered when the process is falling short and concludes with root cause analysis.
  • Change the mentality from knowing and planning each and everything in advance (the wasteful waterfall mindset) to understanding that the vision of what is (im)possible evolves over time. Initially, every challenge is quite fuzzy, but as learnings are being gained through continued PDCA-cycles and end-to-end collaboration, it becomes much clearer. This is also the way to continuously raise the bar. As you learn, you are increasingly capable to define – together with your associates – a more engaging vision of the future.
  • You need to make a clear commitment to not impose a punishment on those who are surfacing problems, experimenting, trying and making mistakes with the purpose of getting value flow. The system would never work if people thought they might put their jobs at risk when they improve their processes and try to better serve customers. 
  • Develop all your associates in scientific thinking and problem solving. By actually working on real problems related to make value flow, help them learn to learn with PDCA cycles. Jeff Liker taught me and my colleagues about Kata by Mike Rother and it has proven to be an excellent method for developing the mindset and actual practice of a whole multinational.
  • Understand that real and accelerated learning happens in the creative tension of creating in-build quality value within the Takt Time. With TPS, the sense of urgency is not in executing and delivering stuff in whatever way, like in most companies. If you want to go serious about experimenting with TPS, empower everyone to monitor and continuously improve how long it takes them to respond to a problem on the value-creation process. Every stop/problem in the flow of creating value is an opportunity to grow mutual trust between leaders and associates as well as to build the strong problem-solving muscle. Outcome: an increasing effectivity in the art of always finding a better way.

I trust all these learnings are helpful for your next experimentations with TPS at Gemba.


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