What’s wrong with Toyota fascination

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Last Saturday I attended a mini-conference called Agile Tuning here in Cracow. Kanban was what was talked a lot about and there was the usual automotive reference: Toyota. There is a lot of fascination with Toyota in the agile community (and elsewhere) and it has always bothered me a bit, but I didn’t really understood why. Somehow this came to me during that event.
You see, there are two problems I have with this “Cult of Toyota”.

First, clearly some of stuff that is inspired by Toyota’s approach to making cars is about how they manufacture them. For example, the whole Kanban system has its roots at Toyota but it was used there to optimize the flow of material to the assembly line and thus the line’s effectiveness. However, software development is not, repeat, not about churning repeatable products from a production line composed of machines and people performing endlessly same tasks. Software development is an inventive process. Therefore we should rather look at similar fields, like product development – we should look at how Toyota designs their cars, not how they assemble them. This whole notion of looking at software as manufacturing is utterly nonsensical and ignores the reality of how software is created.

But, secondly, one thing that is clear to me is that whoever got fascinated with “Toyota way” clearly wasn’t a petrolhead. Toyotas may be reliable and Toyota surely is a great company in business terms, very well organized and managed but their products are anything but fascinating. Toyotas are generally boring small cars and family sedans, not very innovative, not very beautiful, just means of transport to get from point A to point B and not think about it too much. In a sense Toyotas are mediocrity perfected.

I personally would be way more interested in observing and trying to understand how companies that produce outstanding, breakthrough products – or at least products one can be passionate about – work. I would prefer to know how Tesla car came to be than how Toyota Corolla was design. But we don’t have to look at automotive industry for examples – within our own industry we have way lots of creativity and passion. Take Apple. It did produce more innovative, great products people do care about in the last 10 years than Toyota did through its entire corporate existence.

The only problem is that we will have to wait until Steve Jobs dies before management science would be finally able to analyze how Apple works on the inside. Before then his legendary paranoid secretiveness and unending myth-building would, I guess, prevent any serious study of this truly amazing company.

That doesn’t mean, however, that until then the best thing we can do is try to mimic Toyota’s assembly line.

  1. Konrad Garus

    Software development is neither of the above. It is not that much about invention and design. We know something engines, construction, patterns etc. We are in the middle – we get ideas from the creative folks who draw them on paper or in their mind and then we try and create a working product. And that process is more about experience, intelligence and applications of existing solutions (thus repetition).

    • Andy

      You’re right – but being in the middle means we are not an assembly line. Definitely not. So the repetition you mention is on a completely different level which is why I think it completely doesn’t compare to car manufacturing.

  2. Tomek

    Quote: “…their products are anything but fascinating. Toyotas are generally boring small cars and family sedans, not very innovative, not very beautiful, just means of transport to get from point A to point B and not think about it too much.”
    Yap, Toyota Prius with first hibrid engine delivered to marked in 18 months, or Lexus are certainly not innovative and not very beautiful 🙂

    • Andy

      I knew someone will bring Prius up. Sorry, but this is not something I would consider fascinating – it is a very ugly, very boring car. It isn’t even cutting edge technology, as they could have made a fully electric vehicle but didn’t. To give you an idea of what I consider a fascinating car look at something like Tesla Roadster – cutting edge technology that isn’t boring.
      OK, but that part of my post was a half-joke – in all seriousness I agree that delivering a new engine to market in 18 months is an achievement and we can all learn from it. But this is precisely my point: we should look at new product development, not manufacturing and assembly line operations. This is where “Toyta cult” gets it wrong. Developing Prius’ engine was an achievement, churning it out in numbers is probably not interesting, but not for our field.

  3. Markus Andrezak

    I think this description of the transfer of Toyota’s lean ideas manifested in the TPS is far too short sighted and simple. As I already mentioned in the introduction of the talk, everybody knows about the differences between manufacturing and SW development. Especially those who think hard about the transfer of lean principles behind TPS and the Deming management principles behind it.
    I would have no problem at all discussing shortcomings that exist and necessary future development of Kanban and lean. But to start a discussion, first things have to be called and described how they are not bent to an irony of what they are. (See also strangely disrespectful wordings like fad, fads, which are not enabling but hindering open communication and discussion)

    The more complex answer to your posting you may read here: http://www.portagile.com/2010/03/who-is-member-of-toyota-cult.html

    Have fun


    • Andy

      Markus, I think a healthy dose of irony and humor can make things more understandable. And I will search my thesaurus for a polite word for “fad” if you find it insulting, but in many aspects it is how I see it. The problem is the value agile brings is lost if the crowd of “trend followers” (better?) rushes from one method and buzzword to another without really applying the key concepts through deep culture change in their companies/teams. Scrum insisted on such a change, but has been frequently bent out of shape and into a ScrumBut. Kanban has an even bigger potential to be just lipstick on a pig with a nice Japanese name.

  4. Port Agile

    Who is a member of Toyota Cult…
    And of course these “fad boys” (what respect towards colleagues lies in these words) did NOT just copy the TPS because, guess what, you simply can not do it. Instead what they did was look into some principles behind it AND some production theory…

  5. Markus Andrezak

    Andy, you keep on calling people who are trying out new things every negative, ironic, sarcastic, funny name you like.
    I even think you would call the Reinertsens, Andersons followers straight in the face. In fact is yr. very own issue to show no respect to new ideas. I’ve seen it with XP, with Scrum, to a certain extent w/ lean concepts and now w/ Kanban. I am actually very happy to see new things develop. And I can not help having lots of fun applying these things in a very responsible and successful way.

    I told you a zillion times that we’re also doing Scrum. But I simply see no value whatsoever for any person or community in the world in constraining myself to one single tool rather than being open. In fact I think that an open market of tools and even a smart challenge for Kanban and the discussion about results will make us all learn.

    We do not learn from Meta-Discussions tool / process / X is generally not usefull because of history A and ideology B. I guess I even just now already spent too much on that 🙂 I like the results I had w/ Kanban (and w/ Scrum). I also know lots of corners to improve. And I am happy for the good Input I am getting that helps me. But again I am only happy for open, results based discussions rather than theoretical discussions than this one where seroius people and their results are simply ridiculed and disrespected for reasons unknown for the sake of some points for irony.

    Maybe you can show me some fads and blind followers. I haven’t met them. Maybe I did: some of your ScrumButs.



  6. Markus Andrezak

    Or more simple, Andy, what does that all mean? We should all stop thinking and devloping new stuff and simply stick to improve the old stuff? Awww, come on – I’m not into this.


    • Andy

      Markus, it’s clearly my fault but you clearly don’t get my point and somehow you take it very personally. I’m not against development, however I see teams/companies moving from method to method following trends and, yes, fads without ever addressing their root problems and therefore without ever getting real benefits. Kanban has a huge potential be exactly this.
      Besides all the irony and humorous remarks my point is: I’m not sure manufacturing and assembly lines are a good places to look for ideas on how to develop software better, because software is a very different field. We should look at management practices and overall methods used in new product dev as this is way more akin to software.

      For the record: we used Kanban internally ourselves precisely for maintenance/bug-fixing on post-launch products and this is what I was recommending to my consulting clients. Please don’t paint me as an enemy of Kanban, because I’m certainly not one. However, I see Kanban as covering a much smaller field than Scrum – in other words it could complement Scrum (or other agile processes) in certain situations.

      I will write about it separately (and seriously) anyway.

  7. Markus Andrezak

    Hi Andy,
    I can ge along with this posting very well. I absolutely do get your point. I just don’t share it. and what I got wrong or into the wrong tube? was that I thought you are already referring to all into Kanban as fads.

    Why I don’t share the point I wrote myself in length. Lean has led to a incredible quality increase for Toyota. And I think done right it gives similar benefits to software development. Of course, done wrong it will fail.

    But, won’t any method fail, done wrong? What’s the alternative to trying new things? Certainly not staying where you are. That behind all this lots of education etc. has to be done is sure but still shouldn’t prevent us from moving on.

    Shouldn’t people have moved to Scrum. At to be completely honest, I don’t care about the XBut thing two much, mainly for three reasons: i) Whenever you start with anything, you are mostly an XBut to start with, ii) I don’t care if others are XButs, iii) regardless of the field you’re in sports, SW development, journalism etc. compared to the elite aren’t 2/3 of all people whateverButs? So still, everybody keeps moving and for me that’s fine. So XButting shouldn’t prevent progress, maybe even amplify it.

    [When I was still in sports I was always trying out new training techniques, sometimes technical gear but still held course by my principles, so the experiments couldn’t do me too much harm. Should I have stopped experimenting because others might have failed doing it the same way because they didn’t know about principles?]

    As Jurgen Appelo (http://bit.ly/cxt1Sp) wrote I do believe that it can happen that very soon KanbanButs will appear. So what?

    As far as I know lots of people have looked into Toyota Product development System. I haven’t yet heard of any valuable initiative emerging from that. I like the idea, just haven’t seen any progress. If you look at Toyota itself and what Henrik Kniberg found out about their software development process ( http://bit.ly/c0mGbZ ) is not too encouraging that this would be the right place to look for solutions 🙁

    For the innovation and creativity part, i doubt that we can “organize” that and I even didn’t ever liked the bosses I had who thought so. For these parts I fully believe in soft skills and knowledge as well has having a diverse and educated environment.

    Looking forward to your posting on that.


  8. Hugo Rosa

    I think software development is a mix of manufacting and inventing. So, the best solution would be a mix between a good manufacturing system and a good inveting one.
    Besides you think Toyota’s car are boring and not beautiful. They are perfect for their clients. Even Apple are not unanimous, you should not focus in make everyone likes your product, but make those who likes love it.

  9. Zelina

    i think toyota has a big public relation problem. i donnot buy an toyota, because i am not shure, that it will be save.


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