Small Improvements Leading to Big Results

The Open Secret of Success: "Instead of trying to throw long touchdown passes, as it were, Toyota moves down the field by means of short and steady gains. And so it rejects the idea that innovation is the province of an elect few; instead, it's taken to be an everyday task for which everyone is responsible." -- James Surowiecki, The New Yorker

There is so much to say about that quote. I think it's anti-intuitive for many people, which is probably why many miss it. But what I love is that it's just liberating. If this is true, and if much of Toyota's success is based on everyone being responsible for innovation, then I find that inspiring. Empowering. It means that innovation is not exclusive. It's not necessarily only locked inside the special people with big names, big titles, big brains, big megaphones, or big salaries. How utterly democratic. That's not at all how innovation is generally characterized, though. Be careful what you read.

So, will the American auto companies eventually get this? I think they will. It's cool to see Ford getting back into the quality game -- Ford gains on Toyota -- the Toyota way -- now so things may be changing. This bit about companies trying to leverage the Toyota manufacturing system is really interesting to me. It seems difficult to implement because it's such a different way of thinking, but extreme circumstances are also efficient focusing mechanisms. People get back to basics because they have no choice. That's where Toyota's system came from, actually -- a group of people who built a company during difficult times.

As soon as I read these new links (thanks for the pointers, Chris), I thought about how the Toyota production system is open source, basically, and how leading FOSS developers embrace the very same principles of incremental improvement. Just see Linus Torvalds here and here for one obvious and high profile example, but any reading of open source culture and software development methodologies will bubble up many interesting associations.

Everything tagged Toyota here.
Comments:

Reputation is everything, and Ford has lost pretty much all credibility of a quality automobile manufacturer.
"Ford - Found On the Road Dead" or "Fix Or Repair Daily" maxims didn't come to be for no reason. Meanwhile, you don't read or hear such things about Toyota.

Mind you, this was not soemthing that happened overnight: the U.S. market laughed at cheap Japanese cars which steadily innovated and got to be a term for quality, while Ford and the rest got progressively worse in quality, design, and features.

I find it really ironic that Mazda, a daughter company of Ford, is doing great, while the parent company itself has taken heavy hits.

The fundamental problem is this:

if I have a Toyota, and the quality of that manufacturer remains high, why would I want to risk my position, and buy a Ford? Ford's reputation has been ruined (and other U.S. manufacturers aren't far behind).

On top of that, the U.S. carmakers cling to the old model (I see some parallels to a certain computer company): automatic transmission, no modern turbodiesel engine in passenger vehicles, really poor visual design.

Posted by UX-admin on October 28, 2008 at 01:58 PM JST #

Thanks for the link to my Ford/Toyota item, Jim. Your thoughts here are spot-on, especially when you point out that the Toyota Production System harnessed the open-source insights of the many in the face of hard constraints. (It's \*very\* hard for many Americans to understand just how broken the Japanese economy was when WW2 ended.)

In the 1960s and early 1970s, when Toyota and Honda were tiny niche brands in the U.S., the Big 3 of Detroit were mostly fat and happy. Now that the industry roles are being reversed, the Japanese makers already have the habits of incessant improvement ground into them -- wired into their DNA -- while the American makers scramble to make up lost ground. It's to Ford's credit -- the previous commenter's views notwithstanding -- that they \*are\* improving their quality, and doing it stepwise, like Toyota would.

I'll be interested to dig around in your archives to read more of your thoughts in this vein.

Posted by Tim Walker on October 28, 2008 at 09:30 PM JST #

UX-admin ... It's certainly hard to regain customers that you've lost over a long period of time -- even if you've gained near equal status on quality (which is happening and I've read it many places). However, it \*can\* be done. After all, Honda/Toyota took customers away from the GM/Ford, but it took a very long time. The Americans can do the same. However, they have to think much more long term. That's what the Japanese do quite easily. They think very differently about this stuff.

Posted by James Grisanzio on October 29, 2008 at 03:00 PM JST #

Tim ... I agree that Americans have a difficult time understanding the level of destruction that took place here. And if that is what has shaped some of the thinking here, I certainly see it every day even now all these years later. This issue really has me hooked. Will have to read more. :)

Posted by James Grisanzio on October 29, 2008 at 03:08 PM JST #

Jim,
"A critical difference between historic American land transportation industry manufacturers and TOYOTA Motor Corporation, said company relentlessly builds, over decades, ever improving product."
(Manufacturing: Known worldwide for automobiles and trucks they also design, fabricate and vend robots.)
Simply, it doesn't matter if described offering was a TOYOTA 'buggy whip' they would assuredly build the most efficient, evolved PRODUCT vended for a sensible price.
Question:
'Who would spend $45,000 (USD) estimated price for GM's 'Volt' when nothing more than DETROIT'S future attempt (NOT in current production) to build a clone of TOYOTA'S 'Prius' (1,000,000 units sold as of 2007) ?'
Notice, shortly the 2010 TOYOTA 'Prius' will be birthed at a new Mississippi, U.S.A. facilities.
Dubious historic 'Big 3' marketing types are today trying to vend their latest or forthcoming 'muscle cars' lauding a vaunted (?) past.
My response to this latest 'marketing' failure (Review GM-Holden 'GTO' sales maladies) is this,
"The original American 'Muscle Cars' were made in continental U.S.A. their progeny are fabricated or listed (U.S. Government) as FOREIGN!"
(Be advised, FORD'S V-8 'Mustang' is indeed assembled in OHIO, U.S.A., alongside it's brethren, of +65% off-shore content this likely due to it's GERMAN sourced power train.)
In 2008, 'Made In U.S.A.' likely implies an 'international' nameplate.
NO matter public (taxpayer) financial assistance DETROIT'S legendary American 'industrial mindset' (win or lose) will prompt it's downfall!
Related Question:
'How does CERBERUS, a privately held entity, qualify for PUBLIC monies?"

Posted by William R. Walling on October 29, 2008 at 05:25 PM JST #

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