Lean Creativity Through Standardization

January 22, 2007
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The following is an excerpt from the book The Toyota Product Development System, by James M. Morgan and Jeffrey K. Liker, published by Productivity Press. It is the second in a series of three articles on lean manufacturing.

Standardized work is one of the core disciplines of the Toyota Production System. However, when the authors suggested to engineers that they needed to standardize their jobs, the responses were predictable: “We are creative engineers.” “We do not do repetitive manual work.” “We need the freedom to schedule our work day and to be creative.”

Nonetheless, Toyota’s product development (PD) process shows that variations of standardization actually give program teams a great degree of flexibility and enable speed, precise execution, improved quality through robust reliability and system predictability, and waste elimination that reduces cost. In fact, standardization underpins and enables much of Toyota’s success in product development. It is its very backbone.

Rigorous design standardization supports the power of platform reusability, and allows Toyota to share critical components, subsystems and technologies across vehicle platforms, building in lower cost and higher quality. Standard architecture enables consistent body system performance, minimizes test requirements and underlies consistent lean manufacturing processes. Standard development processes build trust, enable development speed through precise synchronization and are key to successfully managing the very complex process of developing new vehicles. Standard manufacturing and testing processes enable consistent quality and excellence in execution of lean manufacturing, as well as make clear the upfront constraints on product development. Standard engineering competencies ensure Toyota’s ability to consistently develop outstanding engineers, produce consistently high levels of product development process performance, and are the basis for professional trust and collaboration.

Far from diminishing the autonomy and creativity of engineers, when coupled with Toyota’s pursuit of perfection, standardization is the very basis for a level of professionalism, pride, and an invigorating environment of technical collegiality and mutual respect unmatched in their industry.

Central to the Toyota lean product development process are three broad categories of standardization: design standardization, process standardization and engineering skill-set standardization. The first of these, design standardization, refers to standardization of product and component design and architecture. It includes the use of proven, standard components shared across vehicle models, building new model variations on common platforms, and modularity and design-for-lean manufacturing standards.

The second, process standardization, refers to the standardization of work instructions and the sequences of tasks in the development process itself. This category of standardization includes the downstream processes that test and manufacture the product.

Finally, there is skill-set standardization, the standardization of skills and capabilities across engineering and technical teams. It is based on a deep commitment to people development and growth through demonstrated competencies. It is quite powerful and often overlooked.

In the area of design standardization and engineering checklists, many of Toyota’s design standards are not given as specific parameter requirements or “thou shalt or shall not” directives. More typically, these standards are concerned with ratios and physics driven: sort of “if-then” statements based on proven physical realities that give Toyota engineers a great degree of latitude and creative freedom while simultaneously maintaining lean manufacturing requirements. Engineers are not constrained by “point-based” parameters. Instead, design standards provide a reliable guide as they work to identify optimal sets of solutions.

In this same vein, Toyota’s process standardization, far from hampering creativity or efficiency, is pivotal to enabling true concurrent engineering and providing a structure for synchronizing cross-functional processes that enables unmatched vehicle development speed. A standardized development process means standardizing common tasks, sequences of tasks and task durations, and utilizing this as the basis for continuous product-development-process improvement. Process standardization is the only way to know reliably what other functional organizations are doing and when they do it. It is how interdependent processes and organizations know specifically what inputs are required from each other and when they are needed. Ultimately, strict process discipline, coupled with standard development processes, is the only conceivable way to run a multiproject “development factory.” It is absolutely fundamental in gauging the performance and progress of any individual program.

With regard to engineering skills training, although most companies considering standardization seldom think of standardized skill sets, this is an essential principle for creating a lean PD system. It builds team integrity, enables incredible development speed and drives task variation out of the development process. Managers have much greater flexibility in assignments, and both managers and team members alike can have more confidence in performance expectations. In fact, Toyota’s culture of demonstrated technical excellence is fundamental to creating professional trust and high-performing teams in any environment.

To ensure all this happens, engineers follow a standard, skills-acquisition-based personnel development process from the first day they are on the job. The process focuses on demonstrated competencies and intensive technical mentoring for advancement: A rookie engineer can expect to undergo an intensive 2-year on-the-job training period before moving up to first-level engineering rank. Ultimately, Toyota invests 3 to 4 years in each new engineer before he or she becomes a serious team contributor. Within the industry, this is a significant investment.

After this initial period, each engineer can expect to spend 5 or 6 more years within a particular technical specialty before being considered a first-rate engineer. During this approximately 8-year development period, engineers are “interviewed” four times per year, and technical areas of improvement are assessed using standardized skills inventories. Training is mostly on the job and special care is given to the assignments that an engineer receives to be certain he or she will have the opportunity for continued technical growth. An action plan is developed through Hansei (reflection) to address shortcomings. Among the criteria used to evaluate Toyota engineers is successful adherence to process and standard methodology, which further develops each engineer’s standardized skill sets. A new engineer’s career path consists of experiences that develop deep technical competence, while slowly climbing the technical hierarchy within each functional department, and is a direct result of engineers being rewarded for technical achievement. The engineer’s boss usually knows how to do the job better than the engineer; he or she also knows the standardized process for doing it, which enables the leadership principle of teaching and mentoring. The lean PD system depends on mentoring for developing talent. To support mentoring, Toyota creates an engineering apprenticeship environment in which highly technical, tacit skills are handed down from one generation to the next, thus basing professional growth on demonstrated competence in the real world.

Editors’ note: For additional information or to order a copy of The Toyota Product Development System, Click Here.

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