The Toyota Culture of Continuous Improvement

David McBride
Tags: continuous improvement, lean manufacturing

As I conduct assessments at organizations that have made attempts to implement lean manufacturing, I consistently observe similar results.

The company has sometimes received assistance from an outside source, either in some form of training or kaizen event. There is a lean cell here and some form of a pull system there. Some attempts have been made at a 5-S implementation, with a couple of tool boards in place and a few documents posted that no one looks at.

Changeover time at some equipment has been reduced, and there is some form of a Total Productive Maintenance program with a preventive maintenance schedule that is not up to date. In truth, however, such companies are not truly implementing lean. This failure to implement the Toyota Production System (TPS), or lean manufacturing, is a result of management’s inability to create a true lean culture.

TPS, or lean, has been around for a few decades; the concepts and tools are not new. Companies embrace the lean tools but do not understand how they work together as a system. They will adopt a few of the lean tools but always fail to recognize the most powerful principle that Toyota recognized decades ago: A continuous improvement culture is needed to sustain lean.

At Toyota, everyone within the organization, from executives to shop-floor workers, is challenged to use their initiative and creativity to experiment and learn. We often hear labor advocates criticize assembly line work as being oppressive, and claim that menial labor robs workers of their mental faculties.

However, this could not be further from the truth with respect to lean. When Toyota sets up assembly lines, it selects only the best and brightest workers, and challenges them to grow in their jobs by constantly solving problems.

All areas of the organization (including sales, engineering, service, accounting, human resources, etc.) are staffed with carefully selected individuals, and the company gives them directives to improve their processes and increase customer satisfaction.

Toyota invests time and money into their employees and has become the model for a true learning organization. The importance of teams and teamwork is a way of life: team-building training is required, and it is put to practice daily. This investment in its employees far exceeds that of the typical organization that focuses on making parts and counting quarterly dollars.

So, what can companies learn from Toyota? The most important lesson is to develop a continuous improvement culture and stick with it. Organizations have a tendency to jump around from program to program based on the latest “buzzword.” It is difficult to build a learning organization when the program changes from month to month.

Companies must start their lean culture transformation with a philosophy of continuous improvement. The change must start from the top, and this may require an executive leadership shakeup. Everyone from the bottom up must be involved in the transformation. This includes training in lean principles, team building and problem solving. Use middle managers as change agents to drive the transformation.

To truly understand the power of a continuous improvement culture, we again look to Toyota. Toyota employees generate more than one million process improvement ideas annually. The more astounding number is the fact that 90 percent of those ideas are implemented. There is no secret to why this occurs. Toyota executives have created a culture that encourages and rewards this behavior.

Whether you are beginning or continuing your lean journey, the transformation to a continuous improvement culture is vital to your success.

About the author:
David McBride is co-founder of EMS Consulting Group (, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based engineering and management consulting firm. David has a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Ohio State University. He has a successful track record in the development and implementation of FMEA and Design for Manufacturability programs at several organizations and has greatly reduced manufacturing costs through the utilization of lean manufacturing, kaizen events and manufacturing system analysis. To contact David about this article, send an e-mail to