August 10, 2022

The patois of the Toyota production system

Toyota has a unique cultural language. This is called 8-step problem solving. This is the “patois” of the Toyota Production System (TPS). Patois is the dialect of the common people of a region, differing in various respects from the standard language of the rest of the country.

8-step problem solving is the dialect of TPS, and it differs from that of other corporate cultures. This is the standard way issues are approached and discussed in work groups and across departments. This problem solving is expressed in writing using Toyota’s A3 reporting system.

I remember taking the troubleshooting course at the training center long before the first car rolled off the assembly line. Toyota has instilled this thinking in all of us.

Shared attitudes, values, goals and practices constitute the culture of an organization. There is a lot of discussion online about how to form a Lean culture and how important culture is to a Lean implementation. We are told that leaders must exhibit certain behaviors in order to be Lean leaders, and, in the absence of these behaviors, the Lean effort is likely to fail.

My friend, Dr. Bob Emiliani, cites many of these desirable behaviors in a 2014 article (along with a list of behavioral garbage – Dr. Bob calls these the “fat” behaviors). The Toyota Production System patois directly addresses many of the behaviors from both lists. Desirable behaviors like honesty, consistency, objectivity, and others are demonstrated in patois, along with combating wasteful behavior like autocratic tendencies, disrespect, and bullying.

Looking back, teaching and asking everyone to solve problems with the common language of 8-step problem solving has been a major key in shaping the Toyota culture. One of the main advantages of this standard method was that opinions and rankings faded away. When a well-made, logical and factual A3 is developed, the results speak for themselves, regardless of the rank of the company. He talks to a team leader the same way he talks to a general manager.

Many of you have heard of Toyota’s famous quality circles. This is the model that these quality circles use to work on issues, and A3 is the reporting method.

8-step problem solving is also the method used for kaizen (continuous improvement). Not that I made an A3 for every kaizen. That would be impossible in the fast-paced environment of a Toyota factory. (At Toyota, the A3 is usually used for big trouble or repeat trouble.) But the thought pattern became the center forward of all Toyota executives. It’s how issues are seen and communicated.

So what is this 8-step problem-solving patois? Below is a typical Toyota-styled A3. Let’s review step by step. Let us first give a theme to the problem. That’s what it’s about.

The first step in the problem solving process is to develop the problem statement. This sets the scope by narrowing the focus. What is a problem? There are 4 ways to identify problems.

1. Deviation from a standard.

2. The standard is met, but a higher standard is now required/desired.

3. Achievement of the standard is inconsistent.

4. No standard exists.

Once you realize you have a problem, you form the problem statement. A good problem statement answers the following questions:

1. Who is affected? Customers

2. What is affected? Revenue

3. Where is this a problem? Dispatch

4. When is it a problem? Daily

5. What is the effect? OTD is 68% on bothn/a trimester

2nd step In practice, I write down these questions and answer them. I form the problem statement from the answers. “Daily OTD on shipment is 68% over the past 3 months, negatively impacting customers and revenue.” This simple method helps me narrow the scope of my problem-solving efforts.

Step 3 Next, we need to understand the current condition. This requires observation at the “gemba” or “the actual place where the work occurs”. We gather as much information as possible by asking questions of operators, reviewing/collecting data, reviewing accuracy/flow of information, and moving upstream as needed. Spend the necessary time and take lots of notes. These observations paint a picture of what is really going on. Taiichi Ohno said: “When a problem arises, if our investigation of the cause is not thorough, the actions taken can be unclear.” Gather as much information as possible. In my opinion, the #1 reason for failure is the lack of a thorough understanding of the current situation.

Step 4 is to set a SMART goal. A SMART objective is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. I’ve found that an easy way for me to make a purpose statement is to think of it this way: To do what, to what, by when. Something like this: Increase the OTD to 85% by 12/1.

Step 5 is called root cause analysis. This is where the well-known 5 whys are asked. Toyota believes that if you ask “why” at least five times, you’ll get to the root cause. If you’re struggling with the 5 Whys, you’re in good company. About asking why 5 times, Ohno said, “It’s hard to do even though it looks easy. I think most people who have done it would agree. But how do you know you’ve gotten to the root cause? We use the “Test therefore” to check the accuracy of our 5 whys. You simply start with your last answer followed by so, then the next answer back and forth. If it makes sense, you have a well-reasoned 5-Why.

Here is a simple 5-Why with the “Test therefore”:

Step 6 Countermeasures that address the root cause are the next step. When you have identified the root cause well, the countermeasures tend to become obvious. Sometimes, instead of having a single root cause, multiple factors can contribute to a problem. When this is the case, each contributing factor must have a countermeasure. Ohno said, “For every problem, we need to have a specific countermeasure.”

Step 7 After defining our countermeasures, we develop an implementation plan. Simply copy/paste the countermeasures into the implementation plan. Then fill in the “Where”, “By whom”, “By when” and “When completed” sections on the plan. Keep in mind that the order of implementation may matter.

Step 8 is the Track. Simply copy/paste the goal statement indicating the due date in the “When” box. On this date, we check whether our result is acceptable. If acceptable, we normalize our results. Otherwise, we repeat the problem-solving process until we have an acceptable result.

It is the iterative, logical, rational and scientific method used by Toyota to counter problems in all aspects of its business. Ohno said, “The TPS was built on the practice and evolution of this scientific approach.” 8-step problem solving is the patois of the Toyota Production System, and it will also work for your business.

Phil Ledbetter worked in Production Management at Toyota Motor Manufacturing – Kentucky for 16 years. He is the author of The Toyota model, the plan for just-in-time and culture change beyond lean tools. Phil is the lead consultant for The Toyota Template. .