In 2015, several RAM employees went on a Lean Manufacturing Tour of Japan. In this series of posts, we recount our experiences and observations. May our stories leave you convinced of the truth of the great Japanese proverb:


One of the companies we visited in Japan is a small automotive startup called “Toyota”. We came away convinced that with time, grit and determination, they will do well and make a name for themselves.

OK, seriously, any student of Lean principles knows about Toyota. And they know that the short story is: Edward Deming tried to convince Americans of the excellence and efficiency of Lean. America told him to pound sand. Well, that’s a bit of exaggeration. But what is not an exaggeration is that Deming exported his quality system and quality management skills to post-war Japan, and in doing so helped Lean production and quality concepts take root. A few short decades later, Japanese companies birthed and bathed in those philosophies started kicking American manufacturers all over the place on the open field of competition. This resulted in many American companies saying collectively: “Hmmm. There seems to be something to this Lean stuff after all. Also, pour me another scotch. Toyota just beat us in sales again for the 20th quarter in a row.”

With that as background, we were especially delighted and interested to visit Toyota. And here are a few of the things we learned:

1. The traditional approach to root-cause analysis stinks…In the traditional American manufacturing setting, this is how it goes: Jimmy shows up to work. Jimmy’s having a good day. Jimmy makes some bad parts. Biff the line supervisor comes out and discovers the bad parts and proceeds to kick Jimmy in the groin and call him an idiot. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. Toyota has noticed that this approach is…lacking. And they have wisely surmised that any employee who believes they are under attack will NEVER lead you to the true root cause, because they’ll be too busy obfuscating or protecting their job or quickly donning an athletic supporter so that they can prepare for the kick. Rather, Toyota has a novel theory. They think Jimmy came to work wanting to do well. And in the vast majority of cases, Jimmy was not doing anything negligent or with ill intentions. Instead, something about Jimmy’s machine, Jimmy’s work instructions, Jimmy’s training, or the company’s processes – all of which are MANAGEMENT’S RESPONSIBILITY – failed Jimmy and either allowed or encouraged him to create discrepant parts. So rather than saying, “Jimmy, why are you an idiot?”, Toyota says, “What is the cause of this?” That way it is de-personalized and they have a true shot at determining, real-time (at the gemba), why Jimmy (or, in Toyota’s case, Jimi-san) made bad parts.

2. Managers are expected to be mega-Lean…Front office personnel are expected to provide kaizen improvements each year that total – either in dollars saved or productivity streamlined – three times the value of each of their salaries. Time to sharpen the pencils and get your kaizen on! Those who fail are ritualistically tortured.**

3. Scare people in a safe environment…The safety training dudes we met seem to enjoy their job a bit too much. (“Hey Akumu, that’s the 6th time you’ve shown us the toe crusher…and why do you keep smiling when you do it?”) But the effect of their work is undeniable. By simulating broken bones and all manner of production floor mishaps, and scaring the crap out of people while doing it, Toyota provides powerful examples that will stick in the minds of their employees forever.

4. Ask for help. Seriously. Ask for help…Here’s what we noticed on the Toyota production line: Competence. Skill. Efficiency. Smooth operation. Excellence. And yet, employees were constantly – via audio & visual cues – requesting help and assistance. This symbiotic, healthy relationship that proactively builds in quality, contrary to the Biff & Jimmy scenario above, is a hallmark of Toyota that everyone can learn from. Your employees should never feel “in trouble” for asking for help. They should feel in trouble if they DON’T ask for help.

There’s much to learn from Toyota.

Except their employee badge pictures.

For real. No one smiles in their badge pictures. But that’s a problem for another day. They’re getting the big stuff right. Who cares if they’re a little bit weird?

* “RAM Technologies will conquer all, except Godzilla.”
** This claim is unverified.