What Toyota's lean manufacturing can teach small organizations

Toyota is a global company that spends a fortune making and selling expensive products around the world. It is known for revolutionizing the methods auto manufacturers deal with their extensive, complicated production lines. The thousands -- if not millions -- of gadgets that go into building an automobile.

So, what can Toyota’s product development methods teach much smaller firms? A paper (pdf) by Jeffrey Liker and James Morgan investigates Toyota’s so-called lean product development process.

Think of product development as a process trying to accomplish the following goals:

  1. Reduce lead times (In this case, the amount of time it takes project to hit market)
  2. Understand that workers know what they're doing. Take their advice seriously
  3. Use the best tools
  4. Put the customer first
  5. Continue to learn and tinker to find the best ways to carry out processes

Work flows must be a stable process, where they can predicted and appropriately planned. This is a great problem in an auto plant with 5,000 employees working over three shifts. Any small, customer-facing organization will also be plagued with significant workload  swings. Downtime is always available, though. Even if it’s just for a few hours, you must plan to fill this downtime to keep projects moving forward. This is especially important if unexpected busy periods relegate projects to the background.  

Make one person responsible for the entire project. From start to finish, this leader will be no mere project manager, but an integrator of the product into the rest of the organization.

Force designers and developers to work together from the start. This may increase up-front time and costs, but keeping them in the same room will pay for itself down the road as bugs and design problems will be flushed out early.

For any product you make, Toyota asks that you standardize. Everything. Create a checklist system to let those building the service understand what it must contain. This makes it easier to test the product and to gauge its success. Product architecture should also be similar. So must product development and processes across multiple projects. This discipline does not inhibit creativity, Toyota will stress. Working within a known system enhances the risks employees can take.

Once you learn the Toyota Rules, only then will you be able to break them. The company expects each employee find more efficient ways to do things. 

Make the work environment a learning culture. Give the team the ability -- and the desire -- to share ideas with other parts of the organization: what is working? What has worked in the past? Where can we economize our time? If the organization doesn’t have much history building these products, find out who has. Ask them. 

Always use the best tools available. But don’t rely on technology alone. Tools and gadgets can be replicated, so technology isn’t a competitive advantage for Toyota. Highly skilled employees remains the company’s greatest asset. Find and train people to make the system more efficient -- while thinking of the customer. 

Finally, you must get out and see how people, customers, are going to use the product. If you’re modifying an existing product, you must understand how the product is being used. Also, you need to know how the product is being marketed and sold by your organization.