Where People Fit in the Toyota Way

A while back I wrote a series on the Toyota Way.  Toyota is unquestionably one of the top manufacturing companies in the world producing high quality products at a very low cost.  At the center of this is the Toyota Production System (TPS) which formalizes production structures throughout the manufacturing process.  However, behind the scenes is a culture of innovation that permeates the entire company.  Other companies can mimic TPS, but creating a culture of innovation continues to be their greatest challenge.

Toyota believes that efficiency alone cannot guarantee success… What’s different is that the company views employees no just as pairs of hands, but as knowledge workers who accumulate chie – the wisdom experience – on the company’s front lines.  Toyota therefore invests heavily in people and organizational capabilities, and it garners ideas from everyone and everywhere: the shop floor, the office, the field.  ((Takeuchi, Osono and Shimizu.  June 2008.  “The Contradictions that Drive Toyota’s Success.”  Harvard Business Review, Page 96.))

While we’d often believe that Asian companies must be more hierarchical, at Toyota, the collaborative and innovative culture is actually flatter than in leading organizations in the U.S.  Regardless of the actual organization structure, the ability to present any idea flattens out the company and allows innovations to happen more quickly and easily.  We see the same type of thing at Google where employees can go work on whatever they want and Google will see which ideas eventually “float”.

Toyota fosters a complex web of social networks because it wants “everybody to know everything.”  The company develops horizontal links between employees across functions and geographic boundaries, grouping them by specializations and year of entry; creates vertical relationships across hierarchies through teaching relationships and mentoring; and fosters informal ties by inviting employees to join clubs based on birthplaces, sports interest, hobbies, and so on.  ((Ibid))

I’ll be honest and state that I have no idea if Toyota has implemented any type of a social network technology, but this is basically what we’re talking about: something like Facebook.  In Serena Software’s well known Facebook Friday’s where employees are given an hour to network and collaborate each week, some of that time can be spent simply playing on-line scrabble across continental borders.  This type of “getting to know you” activity eventually leads to better collaboration opportunities as you have made relationships and have an understanding about skillsets in other areas.  We seem to be starting the processes of creating these networks in our own organizations, but adoption across the enterprise will be our greatest hurdle as some older employees are still wary of social medias and privacy.

HBR goes on to outline some key characteristics of Toyota executives:

  • Willingness to listen and learn from others
  • Enthusiasm for constantly making improvements
  • Comfort with working in teams
  • Ability to take action quickly to solve a problem
  • Interest in coaching other employees
  • Modesty  ((Ibid))

As I looked at this article from a Human Resources point of view, it became apparent to me that everything revolves around engaging employees in a culture of communications.  This is not only laterally with a flow of ideas, but also up the management chain where receptivity to ideas is very high.  We in HR have the opportunity to help create and implement these networks in our own organizations.  We have the ability of providing employee portals that allow and facilitate communication and feedback.  But while we sit around focusing on automating a performance process that is probably already broken, have we taken a look at engaging employees in an endeavor that will influence the productivity of the enterprise?

Published by


systematicHR is a daily news and commentary site about HR strategy and technology.

4 thoughts on “Where People Fit in the Toyota Way”

  1. A very thoughtful post.

    To get to this level of trust says a great deal about the culture of work at Toyota. One needs to have the confidence to speak up about an idea that could work as well as management believing that those closest to the work have the best ideas.

    Quite daunting for most companies, especially if they need to change a culture to reflect this trust.

Comments are closed.