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Quick Summary

The book discusses the 14 principles behind the “The Toyota Way”. The Toyota Way was formally introduced by Fujio Cho, then CEO, in 2001. Each chapter explains a principle with examples and stories of real life work at Toyota. The principles describe how Toyota became a learning organization and a world leading manufacturer.

The Toyota Way House

“The Toyota Way” (the concept, not the book) may be visualized as a house with two pillars. One pillar is continuous improvement, or kaizen. Challenge everything. Learn. Explore. Discover. The second pillar is respect for people. Toyota believes its people can rise to any challenge and equips them with the philosophy and organizational support to do so.

2001 Toyota Way House

The book breaks The Toyota Way down into fourteen principles categorized by the 4Ps: Philosophy, Process, People, and Problem Solving.

The fourteen principles overlap with the four capabilities (system design, problem solving, knowledge sharing, teaching others) introduced in The High Velocity Edge. They’re also directly influenced by Dr. Deming since he worked extensively with Toyota. Also, the second edition of this book was updated to factor in Mike Rother’s work in The Toyota Kata. If you’re familiar with these books or listened to the previous Small Batches episodes, then you’ll feel right at home with these principles. In fact, they may not even be a surprise.

I’ve paraphrased the principles a bit to better fit this format.


Principle one: Adopt systems thinking. Take a long-term view and focus on the entire end-to-end value stream. Do not prioritize short term results. 1


Principle two: design systems for flow and identifying problems. The key to this principle is the second part. Systems need built in mechanisms to surface problems. That’s the first step in solving them. 2

Principle three: use pull based systems. “Pull” in the Toyota Way means the ideal state of just-in-time manufacturing: giving the customers what they want, when they want it, and in the amount they want. This is the foundation for all future lean-esque processes. 3

Principle four: level the workflow to create flow. Toyota calls this heijunka. The idea is manage incoming work to meet demand and ensure minimal interruptions. Unleveled work creates waste by underutilizing resources or overburdening them. Level the work, then just-in-time begins to take on meaning.

Principle five: standardize work as the foundation for continuous improvement. Continuous improvement, or kaizen, only works if there is a baseline. Standardizing work means codifying the best way to do something as it’s currently understood. “Currently” is the operative word in that sentence.

Principle six: stop and fix problems when they occur. This is follow up to principle two. Stop and fix problem as early as possible in the process. Toyota’s Andon cord is an example. 4

Principle seven: use visual control to support decision making and problem solving. A picture is worth a thousand words. Human beings strongest sense is The visual sense. Leverage that. Display the state of the system and processes in useful visuals so people can quickly asses the situation and make necessary adjustments .

Principle eight: smart humans with robot friends. Toyota uses technology to support its people and processes. They do not introduce technology for technology’s sake. They tend to be a bit behind the adoption curve but that’s OK for them.


Principle nine: grow leaders who understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it others. Toyota leaders are coaches. They deeply understand systems thinking, continuous improvement, and dedicated practice. Their job is teach others do the same. 5

Principle ten: develop people and teams who follow the company philosophy. Toyota needs people who can follow the principles and internalize the culture.

Principle eleven: help and improve value chain partners. Toyota views itself as in a learning relationship with their partners. It makes sense because if partners improve their value chain, then that improves the end-to-end value chain back to the customer.

Problem Solving

Principle twelve: PDCA everything. [Plan-do-check-act][] everything, everywhere, all the time. Think scientifically about the current condition and how to reach the target condition. 6

PDCA on top of standardizedwork

This means continuous improvement, or kaizen. Standardized work provides the back-stop for new experiments. Regression is not possible. Instead, emprical results guide continuous improvements.

Principle thirteen: align improvement energy of people through all levels. Engage people top-down, bottom-up, and horizontally. Challenge people and give them the autonomy required rise to the task.

Principle fourteen: learn your way to the future in small batches 7. What a lovely principle, right? Experiment your way forward through constant iterations. Set bold targets then get there one batch at a time. This connects back to principle one: adopt long term systems thinking. That provides the time and mindset to iterate in small batches over years.

These principles underpin two other Toyota-isms: The Toyota Production System and the Toyota Business practices.

Toyota Production System & Toyota Business Practices

You’ve likely heard of the Toyota Production System (or TPS). That’s their manufacturing process. The Toyota Business Practices (or TPB) are newer and apply across all of Toyota.

Here is Liker’s definition of TPS:

TPS is Toyota’s unique approach to manufacturing and the basis for much of the lean production movement that has dominated manufacturing and service trends for the last 30 years or more. Led by Taiichi Ohno, TPS was constructed in a time of low demand and a high need for vareity in Japan, which necessiated a manufacturing apporach that allowed for quick changeovers, low inventories, and flexibility.

Based on the philosophies of jidoka and just-in-time, TPS can effeciently and quickly produce products of sound quality, one at a time, that fully statisfy customer requirements.

Basically, it’s how Toyota makes cars and why this book even exists. Toyota would not be Toyota as we know them today without TPS.

Toyota is not immune from growing pains. Their international growth made it difficult to maintain a coherent culture. Fujio Cho, then CEO, led the introduction of The Toyota Way (pictured earlier) in 2001.

He realized this was not enough to help employees develop a continuous improvement mindset and respect for people and processes. He introduced the Toyota Business Practices as a framework for developing Toyota Way thinking across the entire company.

Toyota Business Practices

This graphic wonderfully summarizes the practices: PDCA guides action with proper intention. You can see the Toyota Kata applied as well.

My Thoughts

The stories and alternate explanations of concepts I’d encountered elsewhere are my favorite part of the book.

Most of my education about Toyota came from indirect sources. So I figured I’d go straight to the source. The book definitely delivered on that. This book is 100% Toyota.

The principles did not suprise me but the graphics and explanations of them did. I really liked the Toyota Way 2001 House. It wonderfully depicts the philosophy. There’s also another graphic of the Toyota Production System as a PDCA loop overlayed with jidoka and just-in-time.

I came away with a newfound appreciation for terms I’d encountered before. The first is gemba (you may know “gemba walk”) and genchi genbutsu.

“Gemba” roughly translates to the place the where the work actually happens.

[Taiichi] Ohno admonished his students to “observe the production floor without preconceptions and with a blank mind. Repeat why five times to every matter.”

Notice that Ohno says “observe”. It’s not enough to simply go. You must observe and study the actual condition.

You must unlearn what you have learned. You cannot approach the gemba with assumptions. One first admit they do not fully comprehend the current condition. Thus, going to the gemba is a learning exercise. First understand the current condition. Then progress toward the target condition.

There’s a wonderful quote somewhere that you cannot learn something you think you already know. This is similar to a zen saying8:

“You are like this teacup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”

The focus on gemba stuck with me, so I applied it in my work. My practice was to avoid assuming I understood what was happening or what people were trying to do. Instead I went to the gemba to see the current condition for myself. Success!

Next comes genchi genbutsu. This is the Toyota principle of teaching by doing directly to the gemba then making correct decisions, building consensus, and achieving goals.

Both these terms come up over and over again throughout the text. You can’t miss them.

Third is countermeasures. Here’s a passage from the text:

The term “countermeasures” is an important one at Toyota. You will hear there are no solutions, just countermeasures. These are measures that members hypothesize might help counter (reduce) the gap between the desired condition and the current condition. Measures are tested, and if they help to reduce the gap, they are continued until better ones are developed. Proven countermeasures lead to standards–the best we know today until we set a better, perhaps more challenging, standard.

The passage made me evaluate why I’d taken certain actions before. Preflight checks are one great example. I hypothesized that if I had a dry run mode to my application, then started the app in a dry run mode during the deployment pipeline before executing a code change, this would reduce errors created from the combination of configuration and code (i.e. “environment” in the 12 factor app sense). That proved successful in stopping many guaranteed failed deploys. I’ve adopted preflight checks as part of my standard work for years now, and in turn, brought it to any new team I work with.

The Toyota Way also made me reasses my view on standard work. I had been missuing the term. The term shows up in the passage on countermeasures and numerous times throughout the text. At Toyota, “standard work” means the best way to do things as we currently understand. It’s a moving target. Standards will changes as requirements change and we discover new ways of working and solving problems.

I think there’s hesistancy in adopting “standard work” in knowledge work (like IT). Detractors see it as means of stifling people’s creative abilities. I don’t think that’s the case. I consider the standard guardrails. They are proven formulas. Human creativity is not needed to complete a standard procedure. Human creativity is needed to improve the standard. There is a time and place for standard work just as there is a time for kaizen.

My mistake was miscategorizing “standard work” as “regular work” (or “business as usual”) type work. That is, the things we know we just have to do by our position. Writing tests is regular work for developers. There may be (and should be) standard work associated with that, for example what, where, and how to test specific bits of code. Human creativity comes to the rescue when there is a new challenge that does not fit the standard work. I’ve included a higlighted passage later on regarding standard work later on in this article.

I did learn something new from the book. In fact, I learned that I misunderstood a concept entirely. You may have heard that anyone on the line and pull the Andon coord to stop the line. That was my understanding until reading this book. That is not true. Anyone on the line can pull the andon coord. A team leader responds to the andon pull. Their job is review the situtation and decide if the line should stop.

There are stories in the book about teams adopting the andon coord without having a team lead come and review. As a result anyone could stop the line creating chaos. So TIL: an andon pull is like a page; send to someone else for further action.


Here’s a grab bag of higlighted passages.

This is actually a quote from The High Velocity Edge. The quote appears in the chapter on “PDCA Everything”. Here’s someone reflecting on their image as a leader and problem solver after years in Toyota:

Lesson 1. There is no subsitute for direct observation.

Lesson 2. Proposed changes should always be structured as experiments.

Lesson 3. Workers and managers experiment as frequently as possible.

Lesson 4. Managers should coach, not fix.

I included this passage because it compresses a 350 page book into four sentences. Sure it’s a lossy compression but it’s pretty good.

Here’s something different.

Our primitive brain hates uncertainity and drives us to assume we know the right answer or there is a known best way.

This is a great quote for a few reasons. One, it connects to a principle in Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge: understanding of phsycology. The author didn’t include “monkey” before “primitive brain”. That would cut down some of human ego. This leads right into Daniel Kahneman’s work on thinking fast and slow. Our primitive monkey brains (no slight to monkeys) are great at pattern matching and applying known solutions. That’s fast thinking. Slow thinking requires reason and analysis. That’s much harder to do. The quote conveys the point that our brains will opt for (likely incorrect) fast thinking without proper training.

Practices like going to the genchi genbutsu and scientific thinking are countermeasures to our inate desire to assume we know the answer. Instead we must discover the correct responses to the challenges before us.

Leveling work (heijunka) is one such challenge. I’ve been questioning if there prerequisites for lean processes. In other words can we just start doing this or do we need to get some thing in order first? I don’t have the answer. I’m still exploring that question. This passage adds some weight to one side of the argument:

Leveling [heijunka] enables takt (stable rate of demand), which is necessary for doing standardized work and balancing work on the line, which is a requirement for leveled pull from upstream processes and supplier, which leads to minimum inventory, minimum cost, and the best quality.

Here’s another passage that alludes to a principle of Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge: understanding variation.

It is impossible to improve any process until it is standardized. If the process is shifting from here to there, then any improvement will just be one more variation that will be altered by the next variation. One must standardize and thus stablize, the process before continuous improvements can be made.

It’s as if Liker is just channeling Deming directly from The New Economics. “shifting from here to there” is special cause variation. “standardizing” refers to removing special cause variation before doing anything else. “altered by the next variation” is tampering. Deming dedicates an entire chapter to tampering in The New Economics. This passage reinforces the importance of standardized work as the requirement and backstop for improvement. So first standardize and stablize, then improve. This led mt o question the prerequisites for doing lean.

Here’s a passage from a former CEO on the Toyota Business Practices (TBP) and standardized work. I think this coroborates my position on standard work.

The Toyota Business Practices–a standard approach of business processes and a common language for all of Toyota. Such a standardized approach is not intended to limit an individual’s way of conducting business. Rather, the standard approach provides a basic framework from which the individual can express their unique talent.

The following passage presents a different view of kaizen. This one hit me hard. So much so that I neeed to higlight it and underline it.

Hansei is really much deeper than reflection. It is really being honest about your own weaknesses. If you are talking about only your strengths, you are bragging. If you are recognizing your weaknesses with sincerity, it is a high level of strength. But it does not end there. How do you change to overcome those weaknesses? That is at the root of the very notion of kaizen. If you do not understand hansei, then kaizen is just continuous improvement. We want to overcome areas of weakness.

Damn. That is one of my favorite passages from the book. This type of thinking shows up time and again in the book. People are always looking to the deeper meaning of their actions. They’re questioning and looking into philosophy. It’s amazing.

Alright, here’s the last one.

Contrary to the notion that lean processes fix problems, the truth is they reveal problems and place a higher burden on leaders, managers, and team members to keep on improving.

This quote resonated with me because it reveals that leadership is a real issue. How many times has the responsibility incorrectly fallen on frontline people when management assumes a new way of working is a magic bullet that solves all of the problems.

  1. This is straight out of Deming’s The New Economics and system of profound knowledge. This should be no suprise since Deming worked extensively with Toyota and other Japanese companies. ↩︎

  2. See “capability one: system design and operation” from The High Velocity Edge. Capability one groups The Toyota Way principle one, two, three, four, and five. ↩︎

  3. This is also discussed in-depth in The High Velocity Edge under capability one: system design. See my article on pull. The idea comes from the legendary Taiichi Ohno. ↩︎

  4. See “Capability Two: Problem Solving” from The High Velocity Edge. This goes hand-in-hand with jidoka or the practice of automatically detecting defects and other failure senarios. ↩︎

  5. See “Capability Four: Develop High Velocity Skills in Others” from The High Velocity Edge. Also refer to The Toyota Kata for more on leaders as coaches. ↩︎

  6. This is a direct reference to The Toyota Kata. I’m happy to see Rother’s work factored into this book because it wonderful distills the mindset. ↩︎

  7. This is why I named my podcast “Small Batches”. Consistent improvement over time. Get 1% better every day. Results compound over time. Working in large batches is more risky and more difficult than working in small batches. So reduce the batch size, stay small, and keep iterating. ↩︎

  8. I think there is overlap with Zen Buddhism and gemba idea. I don’t think this is on accident either. I think there was a confluence of aspects in Japanese culture and Buddhism that led to “The Toyota Way”. First Japanese culture tends to take a long term view, thinking about one or two generations down the line. They’re also group oriented and strive exceed in many things. Japanese work ethic is legendary. Buddhism encourages people to think of the interconnectedness of all beings. Buddhist philosophy is more common in Japan than it is in the west. I’m speculating here, but this may be why it was so difficult for western companies to truly grok The Toyota Way.

    Liker thinks there is a connection as well. He suggests the communal nature of rice farming and culture exposure to Buddhism. It turns out that Saikichi Toyoda was a Buddhist himself. ↩︎