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Run your startup the Toyota way

August 10, 2017

Toyota is known for its manufacturing efficiency. We’ve probably all heard that if a worker on the Camry line sees a problem, they have the authority to stop the line and address it. At the end of the day, teams meet to discuss what went wrong and what fixes actually fixed things. It’s called the Toyota Production System, or TPS, and, like any tech cult, it’s got lots of lingo and acronyms. (Try throwing around “Let’s kaizen this” if you want to seem in the know.) But it also can work for a startup as easily as it can work for the massive automotive manufacturer.

Jamie Bonini, the vice president of the Toyota Production System Support Center, preaches the TPS gospel to organizations in North America and, recently, Australia. He’s worked with small manufacturers, hospitals and government agencies to teach them how to use Toyota’s principles in their particular settings. “You start with the customer,” Bonini said during a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “Are they getting what they want? Then you work back from there.”

The point of TPS is to create a culture where problems are not repeated in order to achieve the end goal of improving quality. That’s as applicable to apps as it is to automobiles. In an interview after the panel, Bonini outlined the basics of the system, which has three parts:

The philosophy that the customer needs to be served by the process and that the people who create the widget — whether that’s a car or a car-sharing app — are the most valuable resource in the organization.
The use of tech tools to establish flow through entire organization — and to halt that flow when necessary. Managers need to develop their teams so that the people closest to the problem can solve that problem.
The application of engineering and design to understand that flow, from the overall project plan to the precise sequence of steps required to complete a task. This can be reviewed every day or every week, but it needs to be revisited often.
These pillars, Bonini said, are “timeless.” Advanced technology can make the TPS system work better, but the focus on people — both those in the organization and the customer at the end of the process — remains an important part of the triangle.

“All three pieces of TPS must work,” Bonini said. “A lot of business leaders have never heard of all three pieces; they put all their emphasis on the tech tools.” Whether you’re in a 10-person startup or a 1,000-employee hospital, these three principals should work together to create a culture of trust and innovation.

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