The Birth of Lean is a collection of conversations with Taiichi Ohno, Eiji Toyoda, and others instrumental in the development of the Toyota management approach. It was edited by Koichi Shimokawa and Takahiro Fujimoto; and translated by Brian Miller with John Shook.
For people interested in how Toyota developed the Toyota Production System the book is a gem. The interviews present a version of Toyota’s history that is raw and refreshingly candid. It’s less a story about superior genius and more about a group of people that worked hard at achieving a better way to make cars, at first because they had to and eventually because they had ambitions to see how far they could go.
A major observation I take from the book is the importance of creative tension to succeeding, even when failing. Michikazu Tanaka, an Ohno lieutenant, uses the term when describing the importance of motivating people. The most striking source of tension is the apparent disparity between what a 1977 Toyota document calls the “Respect for Humanity” principle and the absolute belief Many Toyota leaders had that the Toyota Production System could not have been developed without a strong, and at times autocratic, top-down leadership approach.
Leveraging that tension is the biggest challenge leaders have in managing enterprises. Art Byrnes’ assertion in his book The Lean Turnaround that the top leader in an enterprise must be personally involved in any Lean transformation is consistent with observations my colleagues and I have made regarding the degree to which project teams and organizations are successful with Lean.
This book doesn’t provide any clear direction in managing this tension, yet it is helpful to understand that no enterprise is going to escape this apparent contradiction. It needs to be embraced.
There are some wonderful quotes to be found in this book. A favorite of mine is “wisdom is born from the ideas of novices,” in recognition that a fresh perspective often surpasses the experience of veterans who may believe they have seen it all. Think about the tension in that dynamic and how it might be reflected on your projects and in your organization.
The most consistent thread in the interviews is that everyone at Toyota was always learning, and learning aggressively. It did not matter if you were a senior leader, department manager or line worker. Your job was not to perform the work, but to learn how the work could be done better through the performance of the work. This is a daily practice.
Leaders should take some comfort in reading this book. Toyota was a ragtag company that through perseverance and dedication became a global giant. Whatever your aspirations for your project or enterprise they are achievable for you and your colleagues – by employing similar perseverance and dedication. That’s available to all of us, if we really want it.