Paul Ingrassia has no doubt forgotten more about the auto industry than most of us will ever learn, but every so often he falls into the same trap that other mainstream press writers do: When analyzing the problems of the auto industry, he focuses on all the business mistakes a company makes, but not at all on the actual manufacturing processes involved in making the cars.
In an otherwise fine article in today's Wall Street Journal about the problems Toyota is going through right now ("Toyota Isn't Immune From the Recession"), Ingrassia tells us some of the things the Japanese auto giant has done wrong in recent years but fails to mention what it was that made Toyota so good in the first place. You won't find a single mention of lean manufacturing or continuous improvement or kaizen or any of the well known and well publicized "secrets" to Toyota's success in this article, nor is it suggested that Toyota should re-commit itself to eliminating waste wherever it can, i.e., sticking to the continuous improvement philosophy that got them to the top of the automotive mountain.
So leave it to a couple lean gurus to clarify the situation, at least from a manufacturing perspective. In a recent e-letter, Lean Enterprise Institute founder Jim Womack notes, "John Shook, in his management column , has been very articulate in observing that Toyota from its beginnings always wanted to be the best at solving customer problems using the least resources so it could survive. But in the mid-1990s it changed course to embrace the common view in business that growth of any sort is good and that being biggest is best. This is not the lean way and I predict a return to Toyota's traditional view of its purpose. I also predict that the current downturn will prove a blessing by giving Toyota time to replenish its stock of lean managers. Its breakneck growth seriously diluted its managerial experience level and was becoming a grave risk to its long-term success."
John Shook, by the way, will be the keynote presenter at the upcoming IW Best Plants Conference at the end of April in Nashville. Don't miss the chance to hear one of the world's leading experts on Toyota, continuous improvement and all things lean.