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Lean development turns sickness to revival

The MIT Massachusetts Institute of Technology study ‘The Machine that Changed the World’ was described as too good to be true (3 times as quick, 3 times less expensive and much better quality.) The "machine" was TPS the 'Toyota Production System', the subject was lean development and lean production in the Japanese car industry.  And the story of success was about TQM Total Quality Management, not to mention target costing, ‘kanban’ just in time, poka-yoke (mistake proofing) and ‘keiretsu’ networks of cooperating contractors.  

At that time, quality management on the most efficient European car (i.e. BMW) was costing more than an entire Japanese car (Lexus).  Inspired by Deming’s precepts, quality in Japanese cars was being built in from the start of the project, whilst quality in European and American cars was still an afterthought. An American delegation visited Japan to resolve the problem. Led by President George Bush Senior, the goal of the representatives from America’s three big car companies was to convince the Japanese that they should buy more American cars. 

The American president was unlucky. Suffering from a bout of gastroenteritis he vomited on the President of Japan, before fainting. Needless to say, this did not persuade the Japanese to buy American cars. But, the Japanese have a tradition of politeness. (In fact, they are typically very intelligent islanders, with a flag that’s red on white like the English, and they also drive on the left ;-) 

They wished to suggest – ever so politely – that if the Americans could start to put the steering wheel on the 'right side' of the car, then perhaps they could start selling more vehicles in Japan.  Certainly, there was a small niche market for the iconic American car, to cruise Main Street in the 1950s James Dean image. Perhaps, there was a niche market for people who wanted to drive on the wrong side of the road ;-)  

But, in the end you have to really listen to the customer, genuinely. The Europeans were no better. There was a strong smell of denial. After first explaining that the Japanese results were better only because they worked all night long like ants, a few pioneering companies at that time, realizing they had no choice, started to introduce the changes that made a difference: platform teams, simultaneous engineering, partnerships with suppliers. And it worked!

In a short time, those companies led the pack in their ability to manufacture cars cheaply and effectively. Other car companies started to believe there might be something in the Japanese 'TPS' approach. When a company in your own market starts to do something so much better, there is really no point to denial. 


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