Why do we keep doing things the same way? Innovate, Experiment, Commoditize

by Edward Henkler on December 3, 2013

Analysis of the Toyota Production System by Harvard Business School Professor Steven Spear, suggests that all processes consist of four elements: Activities, Connections, Pathways, and Improvements.  There is a tendency to think that certain industries are so complex that they cannot be broken down so simply but, as an industry matures, it becomes increasingly easy to make the conversion.  As one example, medical school is taught almost the same way it was one hundred years ago.  How much has our world changed in one hundred years?  The information age has fundamentally changed the availability and accessibility of information in recent years yet some med school scheduling is still following a pattern established when students had to help their families with the farm.  It may be appealing to some to suggest that the training of doctors cannot be “commoditized” but Toyota has successfully applied these concepts to another very challenging task.  Professor Spear describes the manufacture of cars as “10,000 separate components that must be made through millions of process steps by independent entities across the world, to degrees of precision that engineers of prior generations could not even measure.”

Why do we keep doing things the same way year after year?  Perhaps we become enamored of the complexity we’ve created?  Perhaps we’re afraid of change?  Perhaps we think change devalues us or the activity?  Perhaps we’re just too busy to analyze and change?  Perhaps the process is so complex that we don’t know where to start?  There are innumerable possible explanations but I think it goes back to my previous post.  We need to constantly be moving along the Innovate, Experiment, and Commoditize curve, always seeking a better, more efficient approach.

The Innovator's Prescription

The following excerpt from “The Innovator’s Prescription” by Clayton M. Christensen et al, explains the five “rules-in-use at Toyota:

  • Rule 1 (Activities).  Each value-adding step in a process must be completely specified, so that when a worker hands off what he’s done to next worker, the part is perfectly prepared for her to add the value that she has been assigned to add. When this rule is followed, it eliminates the need to ever rework something that the prior worker did imperfectly.  And it helps eliminate actions that do not add value to the next step, because that is wasteful.  There must be a clear go/no-go verification at the conclusion of every activity, so the worker performing the activity and the worker who will perform the next activity in the process both know that they have done exactly what needed to be done.
  • Rule 2 (Connection).  Never add value to a part that is defective.  That means you should never work on a part until it is ready to be used in the next step.  When you use the output of the prior step immediately, it tests whether the prior activity was perfectly done.  This allows the worker to improve whatever element of the activity was responsible for the problem – so the activity isn’t allowed to continue producing inadequate results.
  • Rule 3 (Pathway).  The sequence of steps that a part takes through the process must be completely specified as a series of one-to-one handoffs – the same worker always gives what he has done to the same worker to perform the next step.  Any-worker-to-any-worker handoffs are not allowed.  This creates unambiguous responsibility for doing it right, and makes it easier to correct the cause of problems.
  • Rule 4 (Improvement).  Perform each step in your process the same way every time – not to make the work mindless, but to scientifically test whether doing it this way, to these specifications, will result in perfection every time.  It allows workers to conduct controlled experiments to improve toward the “true north” goal of making perfect products at zero cost.
  • Rule 5 (Improvement).  Never allow the cause of a problem to persist by working around it.  We must change our methods whenever a faulty result occurs so that it cannot happen again.

This is not about training future doctors or building cars.  Instead, it is a reminder to always seek ways to improve processes, and to never fall victim to the “we’ve always done it that way” excuse.  Innovate, Experiment, and Commoditize!

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