Columnist Lee Schafer provides short takes on economic incentives and choices, business strategy and performance, market moves, what business leaders are saying and doing and other topics that pique his interest.

A Moment of Silence Please for Eiji Toyoda, One of the Greats

Posted by: Lee Schafer Updated: September 18, 2013 - 10:11 AM

For process engineers and Six Sigma quality improvement nerds, this week must have been a little like when rock ‘n roll fans learned of the death of Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead.

A great one has passed.

So, a moment of silence please for Eiji Toyoda, who as a member of Toyota Motor’s founding family had a hand in creating what’s called the Toyota Production System and a body of guiding corporate principles known as the Toyota Way.

Toyoda died this week at the age of 100 in Toyota City, Japan. 

As a corporate development executive as far removed from the manufacturing floor as one could get, I was a reluctant participant in a total quality management training program in the late 1990s. Half a day into training my attitude had flipped completely.  This training was both fascinating intellectually as well as important in understanding how to run the business well. 

The terms may have been different, but most of it had come directly from Toyota.  

There were concepts like “kaizen,” a commitment to continuous improvement. There was the critical importance of tireless efforts to eliminate waste, and it wasn’t just waste anyone could see, like scrapped parts in a flawed production process. It was waste everywhere, in any facet of the business.

Watching video tape after video tape, no one in that training could have forgotten this mantra: “Find the waste and get rid of it. And keep it gone. Forever.”

Then there is my personal favorite, the five whys.  This technique is a big part of problem-solving training in the Toyota Production System, to discover the root cause of a problem as well as unmask any potential solutions.

It’s easy, too. Simply ask why five times.

Not only can this be very helpful at work, the five whys happens also to be a great way to manage teenagers.

“My homework was late.”

“Why?”

“The printer didn’t work, and it was too late to get a friend to print it.”

“Why?”

“The Epson printer was out of ink.”

“Why?”

“Because you didn’t buy any ink!”

“Why?”

“Because you don’t ever use this printer and didn’t know the ink was low?”

And so you see how this goes.  The root cause was identified and everyone could see the right corrective action to take. Let Dad know the ink cartridge was nearly empty. 

Eiji Toyoda was one of those at Toyota who changed manufacturing forever and changed the way many of us think at work. Even made some of us better parents.

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