Lean: Cure-all or Fad?

Full disclosure: I own a Toyota. In fact, in the more than 20 years my husband and I have been buying cars together (which may or may not be synonymous with matrimonial harmony), we have owned a total of six Toyotas.

I reveal this information in light of all the news this year about struggling U.S. automakers like Ford and General Motors (GM) and the inevitable comparisons with Toyota. As financial woes mount for the U.S. companies, some pundits pin the cause on fundamental differences in how those automakers have implemented the Toyota production system (TPS) and its offshoot, lean, vs. how their originator uses them.

Recent editorials in the Wall Street Journal (James P. Womack, “Why Toyota Won,” Feb. 14, 2006) and articles in IndustryWeek (www.industryweek.com/eadarticle.aspx?articleid=11301) suggest that for Toyota, TPS is an operating and business philosophy that permeates the enterprise—from design to management to employee relations to the supply chain to customer service. For other companies, such as Ford and GM, it tends to be solely a tool to use on the plant floor.

Indeed, while both U.S. automakers have improved product quality and plant productivity, they are still having to slash tens of thousands of jobs and close dozens of plants. Lean experts argue the use of TPS as an enterprisewide business model, rather than just a method to cut waste in the production process (though it’s very good at that), is the main reason behind Toyota’s continued success in the face of its U.S. competitors’ decline.

Despite my affinity for Toyota’s products and admiration for it as a business, I’m not sure the situation is that straightforward. I think lean has many sound principles and makes all kinds of sense, but I worry its recent popularity is making it the “flavor of the day” and contributing to its inadequate implementation in some organizations. Isn’t that what sometimes has given other quality systems—ISO 9000, Six Sigma, the Baldrige criteria—a bad rap?

What do you think? Is lean, properly and fully implemented, the cure-all for struggling companies like Ford and GM, not to mention other manufacturers, hospitals (see p. 24) and service organizations (see p. 32)? Or is it simply a sound quality methodology to use in certain situations—or worse, is it the latest fad?

Send your thoughts to editor@asq.org. Meanwhile, check out the first contribution from Diane Kulisek, our new “Career Corner” columnist (p. 75). She joins five other columnists bringing you tips to help you successfully navigate the changing quality landscape.

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