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Published: June 10, 2008

 
 

Jeffrey Liker: The Thought Leader Interview

The lean process expert explains why it’s so hard to emulate Toyota.

 

Photograph by Dean Van DisI

It is now generally accepted that the principles of lean production and management are far more effective, in the long run, than most other forms of management. And it is also well known how difficult it is to adopt them. The company that was the original model for lean production, also often considered the most cost-effective and successful com­pany in the world, is the Toyota Motor Corporation. Many writers have attempted to decode the key to lean success in general and Toyota’s success in particular. The question they are trying to answer is always the same: How can other companies achieve similar results, without having to duplicate Toyota’s 60-year-long history of in­tensive trial-and-error experiments and observation?

There are few Westerners more devoted to answering this question than Jeffrey Liker, a professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Toyota Way: 14 Management Prin­ciples from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer (McGraw-Hill, 2003), perhaps the most widely read and frequently quoted guidebook to the philosophies, principles, and strategies that drive Toyota’s unrelenting quest to streamline and contin­uously im­prove its manufacturing systems. Liker is hardly alone, of course, as a Western expert on this company’s production system. His fellow writers on Toyota include lean theorists James Womack and Daniel Jones; Portland State University Professor H. Thomas Johnson; innovation writer Matthew May; and Booz & Company automotive experts William Johnson, Michael Pfitzmann, Kevin Dehoff, John Loehr, and Conrad Winkler. But Liker’s perspective is uniquely focused on the underlying philosophies of the “Toyota way” and the gap between the Toyota production system and the prevailing system of management at other companies. Liker is used to having his advice sought and his prescriptions ig­nored, and this has given him a valuable perspective not just on the Toyota production system but also on the way that management ideas take hold.

Like many people engaged in a life calling (as he now sees his study of Toyota), Liker came to the work somewhat unexpectedly. When he arrived at the University of Michigan as an assistant professor in 1982, Liker wasn’t certain what course his academic career would take, but, as he explains it, the American auto industry’s interest in understanding the Japanese was beginning to emerge. “The Americans were starting to realize that there was something real in Japan. It wasn’t simply manipulation of the yen or labor cost differences. Something different and remarkable was going on.”

Almost immediately, Liker be­came part of a study at the Univer­sity of Michigan, headed by auto expert David Cole and Japan expert Robert Cole, designed to compare the U.S. and Japanese auto industries from the operational and cultural points of view. Funded by U.S. and Japanese auto manufacturers and parts suppliers, this represented one of the first Western efforts to unravel the secrets behind the Japanese success story. Liker was asked to examine buyer–supplier relations and product development. He researched Toyota, Mazda, and Nissan, and the suppliers of those companies. On the heels of that effort, Liker be­came codirector (later director) of the University of Michigan branch of a program sponsored by the United States Air Force and the Office of Scientific Research that sent technically oriented students to Japan to work within the country’s manufacturing enterprises and gain insights about their practices.

As Liker immersed himself in the ways of Japanese companies and particularly in the inner workings of Toyota, one thing became eminently clear to him. “Toyota was special in nearly every important measure,” he recalls. “We did a study of ergonomics, and Toyota was ahead of everybody else in having unique tools for ergonomics. We studied product development; Toyota was faster than other companies, and it had a more defined system for working with its suppliers. We looked at the transfer of its plants to the U.S., and Toyota was much more thoughtful about how it established its culture here.”

 
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