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July 26, 2011

Review of “The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement” by Jeff Liker and James Franz

For more than 10 years Jeff Liker and his colleagues have led the way in writing about the “Toyota Way”: holding up a beacon for the true lean philosophy. “The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement” doesn’t really do this. For the first time Mr Liker does not reveal some new aspect of the Toyota Way and explain how it works. Rather “The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement” is a sort of a review of the state of the art at the present time. It barely touches on Toyota at all and focuses instead on case studies of lean implementation in a wide variety of contexts. In my opinion this book is the weakest in the series but is still worthwhile for the case studies presented. 

The book starts with a short synopsis on the Toyota safety recall issue that has plagued the company in the last couple of years. This is not particularly relevant to the theme of the book, but will save readers the cost of Liker’s other book on the subject!. We then move to a fairly long review of the current state of thinking on sustaining continuous improvement. There is nothing particularly new here. Rather it is a summary of current thinking, including that from Mike Rother’s excellent “Toyota Kata”. Personally I found the writing style of this section rather heavy going. The material presented here is all stuff I’ve seen before, and Mike Rother’s book is much better reading. 

It is the case studies that really make the book worthwhile. Rather than seeking to cover themselves in glory the contributors bravely provided detailed “warts and all” reflections on lean implementations they have worked on. Here we read about the frustrations and setbacks, as well as the high points, of a very broad range of lean implementations. The case studies are refreshingly candid, with resistance to change and barriers to progress a common theme. What is it about management and business structures in the West that make it so difficult for us to adapt to modern realities? 

The case studies are well written and very readable, and they cover a large range of situations. There are lessons here for all types of organisation. The case-study set in a vast iron ore mine is fascinating and enlightening. The PDCA approach, coupled with good visual management truly can work anywhere!. There are seven case studies, all with some interesting learning points. 

The book doesn’t go in for “conclusions” but rather “reflections”. Nevertheless, these are surprising. While the authors admit they have spent their careers extolling the virtues of the “pure” lean philosophy of the Toyota Way, they actually argue that the case-study evidence suggests that such philosophical approaches to lean implementation are no more successful that the mechanistic “lean by numbers” approach of many organisations. 

Wow! The “tick-list lean” approach derided by many lean writers and thought leaders (described as “fake lean” or “lean in name only”) is no less effective than the philosophical “think through your problems” approach. This is a shattering judgement. It is heartening for those confined in organisations taking a highly defined approach to lean – there is hope for you. But it is also rather sad. It seems that Western organisations just can’t “do” a culture of working together for improvement. 

Somehow I feel this book brings us to a crossroads. It is time to stop harping on about “real lean” and “fake lean” – both approaches can work well, or fail miserably. It is the culture of our organisations (and particularly management attitudes) that matters; and the structure, and politics of most large Western simply isn’t conducive to continuous improvement. The culture that encourages individual development and self-promotion equally discourages team development and “no blame” analysis of problems for the common good. 

The book closes with a series of “reflections” which (to me) feel somewhat downbeat – true continuous improvement will take years (perhaps decades) to embed in an organisation; most organisations will fail; but if you work hard at it you may make some progress! 

To be honest, if you want a book about establishing a continuous improvement culture then “Toyota Kata” by Mike Rother is a better read and more practically orientated. Nevertheless the honest and straightforward presentation of the case studies in this book are interesting and provide plenty of food for thought on lean implementation, as well as lessons that we can all benefit from.