“Genchi genbutsu” and continuous improvement

When one wants to learn more about “lean”, then it is almost impossible to avoid the ‘Toyota way’. The Japanese car manufacturer has a strong reputation when it comes to continuous improvement (“kaizen“) and ‘lean’ manufacturing. Eric Ries has made a quite a name for himself by applying the ‘lean’ methodology to startups, with many people in the digital landscape now talking about ‘metrics’ and ‘learning experiments’.

In the book “The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement”, Jeffrey Liker and James Franz break down the main principles and practices which underpin Toyota’s continuous drive to learn and improve. The book can roughly be divided up into two parts. In the first part, the Toyota way to continuous improvement is explained from a more theoretical point of view, outlining principles such as “genchi genbutsu” (‘go and see and deeply understand’) and “kata” (a well rehearsed routine that eventually becomes second nature).

The second part of the book contains a number of different case studies of companies that applied Toyota’s approach to continuous development (with varied degress of success). I feel that I have learned the most from the first part of the book, with these being the main things that I picked up on:

  1. It is continuous – Often when European companies pursue ‘lean’ or other improvement practices, they design change programmes with a set lifespan. The main thing that makes Toyota’s approach to improvement stand out is that it is ongoing, applied at at every level of business and driven by a central company vision.
  2. Toyota’s 4P model – Toyota’s approach to continuous improvement is underpinned by the “4 Ps”: (1) philosophy (i.e. long-term thinking), (2) process, (3) people and partners and (4) problem solving. From the examples that “The Toyota way to continuous improvement” provides it becomes clear that these 4 Ps keep coming back in some shape or form in Toyota’s change intitiatives.
  3. “Genchi genbutsu” – Continuous improvement is all about practical problem solving, mainly through going to the “gemba” (‘where the work is done’) and observing. The goal is to really understand the problem(s) and its root cause(s).
  4. PDCA – “Plan-do-check-adjust” (‘PDCA’) is the key mantra which underpins continuous improvement. This comes down to a continuous cycle of assessing problems, developing countermeasures, planning implementation, running the learning experiment, monitoring results and adjusting accordingly (see Fig. 1 below).
  5. Toyota’s application of PDCA – The book describes in great detail the principles which underly continuous improvement. “Learn by trying” is the principle that appeals to me the most, but “constantly finding further opportunities for improvement” and “standardising what works” are in my view just as important for any business.
  6. “Hoshin kanri” – This terms plays an important role in Toyota’s continuous development approach. It means both direction and management control to achieve a business vision. Again, the main thing to point out here is the element of longevity; continuous improvement is driven by a long-term company vision, with strong support at (executive) management level.

Main learning point: I guess long-term persistence is the main message that “The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement” is trying to convey. One of the reasons that Toyota has been so successful in creating a culture of continuous improvement is its long-term dedication to improvement, constantly trying to engrain this mindset across the organisation. I find it very encouraging to see that numerous Western organisations are now starting to adapt a smilar approach, acheiving ongoing improvement through learning experiments and instilling a ‘perfectionist’ mindset.

Fig. 1 – PDCA Cycle (source: http://www.hci.com.au/hcisite3/toolkit/pdcacycl.htm)

Related links for further learning: 



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