Saturday, May 17, 2008

Success Secrets: The Toyota Production System Part 2

This is Part two of my discussion of a recent article on the Toyota Production System (TPS). Part 1 is here.

Although the authors of the article applied TPS to a semiconductor plant, I feel it’s worthwhile to generalize this industrial concept to our pursuit of better outputs in all areas of our lives and work.

The Toyota system as mentioned in the article, contains four key points that combine to continuously improve productivity and output.

1. Highly Specified Activities
2 Clearly define the transfer of material and information
3. Keep the pathway for every product and service simple and direct
4. Detect and solve problems when and where they happen

Item 1 : Highly Specified Activities

The more completely and accurately we describe our activities, the more able we are to determine which steps in those activities might be subject to improvement. If the inputs to our activities keep changing, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine the origin of the results we are getting, much less to obtain better outputs.

The article further defines the specification process as: “all work shall be highly specified as to the content, sequence, timing, and outcome”.

But this process is applicable in far more areas of life than building cars. Consider these examples:

Who’s going to lose weight fastest?

Person A:
“I’m trying to cut back on starches and sweets”

Person B:
“I reduced my calorie intake from 1800 to 1300 per day with only n grams of fat per meal. I added an additional hour per week of exercise beyond the 3 hours I was doing. I expect to lose about 1 pound per week over the next 20 weeks, to attain my goal of X pounds”

Or …here’s another example:

Who’s going to sell more?

Person A:
“I called up a bunch of purchasing managers to see if they needed any aluminum”

Person B:
“This month I am targeting purchasing managers in the machine tools field within 150 miles of our main plant who have returned my questionnaire about the tradeoffs between fast turnaround aluminum products vs. cost. My goal is to increase sales to this market by 15% by the end of Q2”.

I would bet on Person B in both of the foregoing instances. Surely, there are people who can “wing it”, or, perhaps have a highly developed intuition, or a great situational sense of what actions to take at the moment, but for the broad sweep of humanity, I would bet on detailed specifications to achieve repeatable outputs.

And, there is another reason why highly specified activities are desirable. What do you do if your program is not working? How do you change your diet if all you wrote down is “I am trying to cut back”? On the other hand, If you know the content of your meal plan, as well as your exercise regimen, as well as your weight on each day, you have a measurable set of inputs and outputs; a stationary series of data points , enabling you to measure the effect on each “moving part” if you decide to change it. In other words, you can’t go to “Plan B” if you don’t even know what “Plan A” was.

Thomas Edison’s 10,000 attempts to come up with a filament for the electric light bulb is a well-known story, but consider this: unless he had kept meticulous (“highly specified”) records of the failures, i.e. the materials that didn't work, we’d still be living by candlelight!! In other words, careful specification procedures vastly improve the net effect of the experiment. So much so, that Edison may have not been able to give us the electric light without carefully documenting what did not work.

This point reminds us that all the careful specifying in the world will not substitute for the creative input necessary to create a processes, and for the drive necessary to sustain a process. Far from turning us into a bunch of robots, the process of specification is merely the enabler of creativity. But only when the creative process is allowed to be specified, can the results turn into repeatable outputs. You might be able to bake a chocolate cake without specifying, but not 10,000 chocolate cakes, due in 24 hours. The specification process thus leverages creativity.

We’ll discuss the other three TPS processes in upcoming posts.

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