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Can Anyone Out-Lean Toyota?

November 2, 2009
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Anyone who’s ever applied lean manufacturing principles knows that Toyota Motor Corp. is like the sun. The lean world revolves around the Japanese automaker. No other manufacturer is more synonymous with continuous improvement, kaizen, standardization, visual management, just-in-time inventory and other lean concepts than Toyota. The company has been studied and benchmarked by thousands of manufacturers in a wide range of industries.

It’s been 20 years since two events sent a seismic wave through the U.S. manufacturing community: Toyota opened its first U.S. assembly plant in Georgetown, KY, and the landmark lean book, The Machine That Changed the World, was first published. Over the last decade, I’ve had a chance to visit several different Toyota facilities (including Georgetown and Tsutsumi-Toyota City). I’ve always been very impressed with the company’s lean discipline and production philosophy. But, I’ve often wondered, “Why can’t anyone else do what these guys consistently do so successfully?”

During a recent lean manufacturing session that I moderated at the 2009 Assembly Technology Expo in Rosemont, IL, I asked one of the speakers if any other manufacturers rival Toyota when it comes to applying and profiting from lean. In other words, does anyone out-lean Toyota?

The only name that came up was Hypertherm Inc. In fact, Kevin Duggan, a lean consultant based in North Kingstown, RI, claims that company is even better than Toyota.

Never heard of Hypertherm? The Hanover, NH, company is a leading manufacturer of plasma metal cutting equipment. Its products are used by thousands of manufacturers around the world.

By applying lean tools and simplifying product designs through DFMA software, Hypertherm has decreased labor costs by more than 50 percent. That has helped the company improve productivity, slash warranty costs and compete effectively against its offshore rivals. Hypertherm actually exports the majority of the products that it assembles in New Hampshire to Asia, Europe and South America.

I know there are other top-notch lean companies like Hypertherm out there. A few that come to mind are Danaher Corp, Pella Corp. and United Technologies Corp. (especially its Pratt & Whitney division). The recipient of our 2009 Assembly Plant of the Year award (Batesville Casket Co.) also is a lean leader (see “Lean Lives at Batesville Casket Co.” in the October issue). In Europe, Porsche is well known for running a very lean operation.

But, that’s just a handful of companies. Surely, there must be others out there. Do you know any manufacturers that do as good a job (or better) than Toyota when it comes to lean? If so, I’d love to know who they are.
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