01 Feb 2002
Replicating Toyota's SuccessTopics:
idea of human cloning is controversial, but cloning a successful
business concept remains as desirable as ever. For HBS assistant
J. Spear, this pursuit led him to Toyota, whose perennial
leadership in quality manufacturing attracts many would-be emulators.
After about four years of on-site research at Toyota and its affiliates,
in 1999 Spear and HBS professor H. Kent Bowen published a Harvard
Business Review article titled "Decoding
the DNA of the Toyota Production System." Understanding
Toyota's production system, though, was just the first step.
After all, Spear notes, the company has welcomed countless observers,
even competitors, through its factory doors, but no one has yet
approached Toyota's success. "The research we've
done since 1999 is not so much about decoding the DNA as it is
about replicating it," says Spear.
In looking for keys to that replication, Spear focused on the
company's approach to solving problems and noticed the conscious
way Toyota's managers involve employees in this process,
even to the point of leaving a production line at suboptimal performance
so that workers could develop improvements on their own.
The development process itself is also unique. Rather than adopting
the first good idea, workers create iterative, structured experiments
to test hypotheses and foster continuous learning. The result
is a workforce that can explore problems independently, an asset
that, in the long run, is more valuable than ingenuity. "It's
likely a company is not going to get a design perfect on the first
try," notes Spear. "It needs to have the people within
its system capable of making improvements."
Spear has now helped apply Toyota's principles to much of
Alcoa's worldwide manufacturing operations and to the more
unusual terrain of U.S. hospitals. From smelting plants to accounting
offices to hospital pharmacies, he's seen the technique pay
off. "If companies learn to treat every problem as an idiosyncrasy
and approach solving it as an experiment," says Spear, "they
can always make progress."
- Laura Singleton (MBA '88)
Class of DBA 1999