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The Way And “The Toyota Way”

Recently at work, I’ve been studying something called the Lean Method — a process improvement system that originally began in the manufacturing production lines of Toyota. It is also known as “The Toyota Way” or TPS, short for Toyota Production System. The system has been so effective, its impact has spread to arenas outside of automobile production, which is I’m studying it in the context of healthcare (pdf). Guy Kawasaki, an innovation guru, offers this document that describes The Toyota Way as the “Elegant Solution” (pdf). And finally, I saw found this article in the New York Times entitled, “The ‘Toyota Way’ Is Translated For A New Generation of Foreign Managers”. I’ve pulled a couple of excerpts that I thought would be interesting to juxtapose the Toyota Way in looking at the way they approach their process to the way we approach the health of our churches. Perhaps there’s no real correlation at all, but I thought it was interesting. (emphasis and indented paragraphs mine).

“For Americans and anyone, it can be a shock to the system to be actually expected to make problems visible,” said Ms. Newton, a 38-year-old Indiana native who joined Toyota after college 15 years ago and now works at the North American headquarters in Erlanger, Ky. “Other corporate environments tend to hide problems from bosses.”…

Christians know this as confession, but usually this is limited to the individual, private level. One thing that Toyota does that is notable is that it is doing as an organization — openly stating progress of the individual goals. True community is when we can easily discern how everyone is doing. Is this kind of openness possible in our churches?

“There is a sense of danger,” said Koki Konishi, a Toyota general manager who heads the institute. “We must prevent the Toyota Way from getting more and more diluted as Toyota grows overseas.”…

We talk a great deal about missions in many churches, but do we talk about discipleship? Are we more concerned that people understand the propositions of Christianity than that they walk in the ways of God? Are we more zealous that people hear the word or do what it says? The latter requires more commitment and sacrifice, but if Toyota is committed to their management philsophy becoming diluted…I mean, we are talking about eternal life with the Creator…

Mutual ownership of problems,” is one slogan. Other tenets include “genchi genbutsu,” or solving problems at the source instead of behind desks, and the “kaizen mind,” an unending sense of crisis behind the company’s constant drive to improve….One tenet that she studied was “drive and dedication,” a practice of always seeking out problems and then solving them by breaking them into smaller, more manageable pieces. The class also discussed other slogans, like “effective consensus building” and “respect for people.

Wow. Mutual ownership of problems. Will we accept a mindset that says whatever impacts the African American Christian community is my problem as well? Will we say that for our Catholic and Orthodox brothers? Instead of avoiding problems, can we seek them out? We don’t have to agree, but can we break them into managable pieces? Even to say, “I don’t agree with your stance on…but I respect you and the Kingdom of God is near.”

Toyota’s culture, she said, is still grounded in a Japanese-oriented brand of group-think. But in some cases, Toyota has also adapted it to fit American culture, she said, dropping group calisthenics at American factories, for example, although that is still common at Japanese plants.

This is definitely an interesting point in that an Asian philosopy of management is open to adaptation here. Many intergenerational churches probably can attest to the necessity of this. If Toyota can do this in making a car, couldn’t we do it in the hope of building a stronger church?

She said she understood the Toyota Way better after learning from people who had lived it their entire professional lives….“When I saw folks in high ranks, like Mr. Watanabe, and how consistent and dedicated they were, I knew they were true believers” in the Toyota Way, Ms. Newton said. “Now, I’m a true believer, too.

Two key words here: consistency and dedication. They lead to building true believers. I know that Asian American church has had a short history filled with a great deal of ups and downs, social and economic ups and downs, and fly-by-night leaders and churches. But perhaps the greatest antidote to the “Silent Exodus” is to persevere and grow roots. May we be “true believers” in The Way, The Truth, and The Life who live such lives of dedication that others will be led to believe as well.


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

3 responses to “The Way And “The Toyota Way”

  1. elderj

    It is interesting to juxtapose this analysis with your previous post about “What if? and even the ones about Korean Christian virtues” It seems easy for people to see the benefits of a culturally influenced management or business models, but then critque culturally and especially Asian influenced Christianity. Why is this?

  2. Are you saying there’s a double standard?

    I don’t understand it either. I don’t understand how this model of openness and accountability would be present in a management system, but not in the church. I don’t understand that a standard of excellence is present in business practices, but not in church practices.

    Obviously, it’s not impossible for Asians to flatten hierarchy structures, be open to adaptation, take on such noble views as “mutual ownership of problems” and the like, but it doesn’t seem to happen as often among believers as it does business folk.

    But who knows? Maybe this is the 21st century payback for the Protestant Ethic.

  3. John Lamb ⋅

    Toyota was able to implement this particular management model because someone at the top made it everyone’s job to follow. If Toyota were always a company of peers, who would have had the authority to choose that Way for the corporation as a whole? Accordingly, a hierarchy structure in and of itself is an asset instead of a liability, as long as the hierarchy chooses the right Way.

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