What Can Toyota Teach IT About How To Be Successful?

The Secret To Toyota's Success Lies In Its Corporate Culture
The Secret To Toyota’s Success Lies In Its Corporate Culture

You would think that building cars and running an IT department wouldn’t have a lot in common and in fact were two completely different activities. However, there are more similarities than are obvious on a first glance. Toyota currently makes some the best products available, they do it at the lowest costs, and they have the ability to develop new products quickly. What IT department wouldn’t want to be able to say the same about itself?

At the heart of Toyota’s success is its Toyota Production System (TPS). Countless books, papers, and research reports have been written about TPS as everyone from other car companies to pharmaceutical companies have tired to copy Toyota’s methods in order to emulate their success.

Hirotaka Takeuchi, Emi Osono, and Norihiko Shimizu have spent the past six years studying what makes Toyota a success and they’ve come away with some interesting lessons that apply very well to IT departments. One of the things that they discovered is that the TPS is a key part of Toyota’s success, but their corporate culture is just as much if not more responsible for Toyota being successful.

In many IT departments, once we get something working correctly, be it a process or an application, we tend to leave it alone and focus on other issues and problems. At Toyota they have developed an environment in which there are constant contradictions and paradoxes that don’t allow any solution to remain stagnant for long.

What this means for Toyota employees is that they find themselves having to deal with challenges and problems all of the time. This requires them to learn how to constantly create new and novel ideas that allow them to solve these challenges. The result of all of this innovative thinking is that Toyota is always constantly getting better. What IT department wouldn’t kill to be able to say that?

Here’s the part that so many companies that study Toyota miss: at Toyota they don’t believe that efficiency by itself can guarantee that Toyota will be a success. Instead, Toyota believes that its long-term success lies in its workers. It believes that the wisdom of its workers is what will allow it to improve.

Since its workers are its knowledge repositories, Toyota takes the time to invest in its workers and in its organizational capabilities. This is not a one-way street. Instead, Toyota is also open to new ideas no matter where they come from: production, development, sales, etc.

The folks studying Toyota also discovered a hidden truth: when workers are forced to deal with different ways of looking at a problem because of opposing insights, then this is when they will better understand the problem and are more likely to come up with new and novel solutions to the issue.

Next time we’ll talk about Toyota’s culture of contradictions and why something that looks like it should screw things up actually helps Toyota to move ahead faster than its competition.

Does your IT department have a “fix it and forget it” mentality? Do you feel that your IT workers are constantly being challenged to look at problems differently? Do you take the time to invest in your employee’s knowledge or have you tried to store knowledge in IT systems? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.