A spinoff from a textile firm that has evolved into the largest, most successful car company in the world. Toyota is built on the principles of kaizen, which means “continuous improvement”-and which is a synonym for deep practice. Like any talent hotbed, Toyota makes those improvements through its willingness to stop, attend, and fix the tiniest error. In this light, their entire assembly line can be thought of as a single giant skill circuit, continually honed through deep practice.

The Business of Growing Skill

In this report, you’ll hear a familiar business story about a lean, successful Japanese company eating Detroit’s lunch. But when you look beneath the cliches, you’ll see the elements that make Toyota truly unique-and make them like Spartak, KIPP, Meadowmount, and the rest of the talent hotbeds.

For example, at two minutes, when the Toyota executive highlights their “culture of respect.” True enough, but the larger point is that the respect has a deeper goal: to create a free flow of information. To fix errors means you need to listen to everyone-especially line workers, who are the source of many of the company’s improvements. It’s estimated that each year every Toyota factory implements about a thousand new suggestions into its assembly line-deep practice in excelsis.

Check out the mock assembly line at 3:10 – workers are training by putting toy trucks into bins. It seems dangerously close to a scene from “The Office,” but look at the way they focus on it, and moreover the way they talk about it. I know they’re bound to say nice things about their company because the cameras are rolling, but don’t the workers seem unusually engaged? Especially the cheerful guy at 3:35 in the red shirt who talks about kaizen. That happiness on his face isn’t accidental-it’s part of the enthusiasm at the heart of any talent hotbed.


  • Eagerness to stop and fix. Toyota doesn’t just pay attention to errors-they seek them out, and celebrate the process of fixing them. Each factory features an andon-a pull-cord that stops the assembly line. Everyone at Toyota has the authority to pull the andon in order to stop and fix a problem, no matter how small.  
  • Raising the bar. Toyota president Katsuaki Watanabe has said that his goal is to build a car that does not hurt anyone and that cleans the air as it runs (talk about continual improvement!). This mindset allows Toyota to think long-term, and thus to adapt well to the current downturn. For instance, the company just worked with steel manufacturers to buy 20 percent fewer steel sheets, and they’ve anticipated the growing hybrid market.

Of course, they’re not the only company to create their version of deep practice. Check this out-any of it sound familiar?

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6 Responses to “Toyota”

  1. […] Toyota operates on the philosophy of kaizen, or incremental improvement. At Toyota, each person learns the company’s cultural langage by rote. Each participates in the improvement process, pointing out errors and recommending solutions, then triangulating toward a better system, step by step. For example: at the company’s Georgetown, KY, plant, the convertible top to the Camry formerly took 30 minutes to install; after a kaizen process — making perhaps a hundred tiny fixes and improvements — it takes only eight minutes. And it’s not just about efficiency — kaizen frequently results in new, creative solutions. Each assembly line makes thousands of such changes a year; they add up to create something beautiful. […]

  2. Martin says:

    I love your point of view and book, however Toyota may not be the company of current that you want to point out as being talented and dedicated to improvement. Although it may be true, there public relations nightmare doesn’t support that.

  3. djcoyle says:

    Right. It hasn’t been pretty, has it?
    I wonder how they’re going to respond in deeper ways (beyond the PR part of this). I’ve heard some interesting predictions that this is going to make them stronger in the long run — which seems frankly doubtful now. But no matter how you cut it, it’s one heck of a test.

  4. A valid principle is eternal and transcends today’s ‘news’.

    Within less then a year, as dire as Toyota’s most recent ‘failures’ have been, they will be practically erased from public consciousness.

    Not due to any fantastic PR on Toyota’s part…just due to the public’s short attention span.

    We like to focus on the mistakes of others, mostly to redeem our own insecurities.

    Yet we are really reinforcing those insecurities and inhibiting our own positive development;stifling our own potential to take risks, fail, adapt and become successful.

  5. Frank says:

    Toyota has been vindicated form throttle sticking problems by third party (NHTSA) verification. Aside from dealerships installing the wrong place mats in the wrong cars It has been found that driver error caused the accidents. DOT also looked into the mater and determined in testing vehicles that the brakes were never applied in the crash findings and also found that applying the brakes would slow the car in in the event of pressing the accelerator to the floor. Also computer scientist looked through the thousands of lines of code in the engine management computer and found that no amount of how much electrical interference could cause the “electrical problem” to influence the gas pedal and acceleration problem.
    It is a shame that driver stupidity and lack of self responsibility when behind the wheel got pinned on Toyota. Too bad the Toyota company had to take the hit from it’s customers and got thrown under the bus.


  6. James says:

    Mr. Coyle,
    The video links no longer work. The first says it does not exist, and the second says it is private.
    (No need to publish this comment, it is just a ‘heads up’.

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