In fact, quite a few naysayers within Toyota, including its famously innovative and autocratic chief production engineer Taiichi Ohno, scoffed at the idea that the company’s methods could ever be implemented outside Japan. The automaker’s first transplanted factories in the U.S. had failed to fully implement Toyota’s own production system, and not just because the American managers they hired didn’t seem to understand. “When we first visited them,” Mr. Jones recalls, “Toyota was completely incapable of articulating its first principles. They could tell you all the techniques they used, but not the rationale behind them. They’d lived their way for two generations. And they were surprised the rest of the world didn’t work the same way, too.”
The company trained (and still often trains) its managers through the psychologically demanding methods of a Japanese sensei (master teacher). Mr. Ohno, for example, was known throughout Toyota for his practice of greeting enthusiastic young management recruits from the University of Tokyo by drawing a chalk circle on the factory floor and telling them, “Stand there and look for waste until I come back.”
Hours later Mr. Ohno would return and ask what the young engineer had seen — and invariably reply, “You’re a complete blockhead. How did we ever hire you?” The same thing would happen repeatedly, until the dispirited recruit gasped out the right answer (or, more likely, had it whispered to him by a nearby veteran). This kind of ultra-Socratic teaching has some benefits: It breaks down the self-righteous egotism of young trainees, and it instills a problem-solving management culture in which everyone in the organization feels driven to observe problems, suggest solutions, and listen to others’ ideas. But it is painfully slow; it can take 20 years to train a Toyota production expert. And it is particularly difficult to adapt the sensei approach for the kinds of independent-minded gaijin (non-Japanese) managers whom Toyota hired to manage production as the company expanded in the U.S.
Dr. Womack himself said as much in a newspaper interview in the early 1990s, which prompted Fujio Cho, then the president of Toyota’s North American subsidiary and now the president of Toyota Motor Corporation, to seek him out and respond in a private meeting. Other companies, said Mr. Cho, tended to hire brilliant people to run broken, disconnected processes. Toyota designed processes that average people could use to get brilliant results. In the end, Mr. Cho said, Toyota would win.
In effect, this conversation made clear exactly how much of a challenge Dr. Womack and Mr. Jones had stumbled into. Having argued that there wasn’t anything culturally unique about Toyota, and that its production method could be taught anywhere, they could only prove their argument by teaching it so that even “cowboys and geniuses out of management school,” as Dr. Womack says, could understand it. Thus the pair found themselves in the enviable position of being the most popular and prominent translators of Toyota’s management approach for the West.
Learning from History
The phrase “lean production,” as a universal way of describing the Toyota system, first appeared in The Machine That Changed the World. The authors had reluctantly acquiesced when their MIT colleagues suggested the term “fragile production,” but abandoned it with relief when researcher John Krafcik, a former NUMMI manager recruited to MIT, came up with “lean” instead. (Mr. Krafcik would later go on to a career at Ford and eventually to Hyundai Motor America, where he is now vice president of strategic planning and product planning.)
Dr. Womack and Mr. Jones already knew that the Toyota system had roots in Detroit. “I learned everything I know from Henry Ford,” Mr. Ohno had written, “but I took it to the logical conclusion.” Machine traced the history of Toyota’s production system from 18th-century Venetian boatbuilders to 19th-century meatpacking plants to Henry Ford’s first major factory: the producer of Model Ts in Highland Park, Mich. Mr. Ohno and other Toyota executives had studied that plant in the 1930s, when they first converted their business from loom making to car making. (For several years, Dr. Womack has been on a mission to convince Ford’s executives to turn their old, abandoned Highland Park site into a museum of manufacturing history.)