Monday, March 28, 2011

Toyotaism: Efficiency at all Costs

Over the past year now I have been working for a large pet-supply company on a project-to-project basis. This is a company that manufactures pet supplies, like dog toys or cat beds...crates, bones, brushes etc. What I do is provide any video production services the company may need, whether it be promotional videos for their website, how-to videos for their products or general training videos.

Just recently, I was commissioned by [the pet-supply company] to film a lecture given by a man who works for a non-profit company named GBMP (Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership). The lecture was mandatory for all [pet-supply company] employees to attend and participate in. Essentially, my job was to edit the eight-hour lecture down to a one-hour "training" DVD for [pet-supply company] to show any new employees they may hire in the future.

The basic purpose of the GBMP lecture was to educate the [pet-supply company] employees with a "Lean Manufacturing" philosophy, also known in the business world as "Toyotaism". To put the philosophy simply, LEAN is a production process companies can use to eliminate waste, 'waste' meaning any procedure within the work environment that gets in the way of a company maximizing its profit. In layman's terms, the overall objective is to make the company employees work in the most efficient way possible.

As you may expect, videotaping a boring, eight-hour lecture that discussed all the various ways in which a company could maximize its efficiency was tantamount to being waterboarded on a bed of nails. There was one part of the lecture, however, that alleviated the torture a bit. The lecturer from GBMP showed a funny video entitled "Toast", which basically consisted of some old guy making toast for his wife. The video opened with the man saying "And now I'm going to make some toast for my wife"; then, he took two slices of bread, dropped them into the toaster and proceeded to stare into space for five minutes or so while the toast cooked. Every once in a while, the man would walk over to the fridge and get the butter, but mostly he would just stand in front of the counter and wait for the toast to finish cooking.

This GBMP-produced video shows clips from "Toast":

Like many of the other employees in the audience, I found myself cracking up at the absurdity of "Toast". The lecturer from GBMP stopped the video when it was finished and asked the audience what was wrong with what the man was doing. Of course, an audience member immediately pointed out the fact that the man was just standing there - staring into space - and not making the most productive use of his time. I kind of snickered to myself as I stood behind my camera's tripod. I was basically thinking - if I were the class clown - I would say, "maybe he was just saying his prayers." Yes, I realize that's not very funny (like, at all), but I don't think that it was any coincidence that the joke popped into my mind. Although I was laughing on the surface, I think there was a voice inside my head trying to communicate something more profound.

Yes, the more I thought about the video the more I realized how potentially harmful its message was, not to mention the message behind LEAN in general. Maybe I was looking too far into it, but it seemed as though LEAN'S overall objective was to essentially turn the already-very-dehumanized company employees into even more dehumanized individuals. I mean, in LEAN'S eyes, simply taking a moment to stare into space (a very human thing to do) was considered an inefficient use of one's time. In fact, LEAN would likely consider introspection of any kind a "waste", 'introspection' meaning anything that is not a visible, outward action but still can have important value.

Take the inward process of thinking, for example. If the "Toast" video is any indication, LEAN wants employees DOING at all times, not THINKING about what they're doing. Yes, rational thought - the very thing that makes us human - is something LEAN would label 'waste', simply because it gets in the way of a company maximizing productivity and profit. Although it may not be its outright intention, LEAN essentially wants employees to be mindless robots who are always producing. Mechanisms within a lifeless machine. Zombies.

Of course, LEAN wouldn't be so bad if its dehumanization of employees was only limited to the time the employee spends in the work environment. I mean, it's true that companies wouldn't be very functional if employees were staring into space and thinking all day (but, then again, that's common sense, and you don't need preachers of a LEAN philosophy to come into your company and tell you that). The problem with LEAN is that it conditions the human mind in a general sense; that is, the employee becomes generally dehumanized in both the work environment and his or her personal life. The overall message that an individual takes away from a video like "Toast" is that introspection is a waste of time, not just while working, but when it comes to life in general. And I'm not just talking about taking the time to think either. Think about other aspects of introspection, like meditation and reflection and, yes, even prayer. Basically, in LEAN'S eyes, all of these things would be considered waste. The philosophy fails to account for the fact that a lot of important human productivity can occur inwardly, through introspective processes. Work isn't always something executed through outward action. There is sometimes value in "doing nothing".

Now, let me get back to my joke about how the man in "Toast" was possibly "saying his prayers". As I mentioned before, I feel the joke had a deeper meaning. I mean, it may sound extreme for me to say this, but I would argue that the LEAN philosophy is really a philosophy that distances the individual from God, and when I say 'God' I mean whatever higher power you may believe in. In LEAN'S eyes, introspective time with God is unproductive. It is a waste. LEAN wants people to be "on the go" all the time...doing...and producing, not standing still and praying inwardly, which is seemingly inefficient. In a world where LEAN rules, 'He' - the big guy in the sky - only gets in the way of human productivity. Or, to put it another way, God becomes the bad guy, and Productivity (measured in terms of profit) becomes the new deity to worship.

But let's give LEAN the benefit of the doubt and pretend that an employee is, indeed, able to put the LEAN philosophy aside when it comes to his or her personal life. Let's pretend that a person's introspection isn't affected negatively when they are outside the work environment - they're able to think, meditate, pray etc. Would LEAN then be a good philosophy? I mean, putting all dehumanizing aside, is LEAN actually competent in making a company more successful? In order to answer this question, all we have to do is look at LEAN'S greatest "success story": Toyota.

LEAN, after all, isn't nicknamed 'Toyotaism' for nothing. The 'LEAN' philosophy (which, at the time, didn't really have a name) is relentlessly championed for transforming the small company Toyota was in the 1980s into one of the biggest, most efficient car manufacturers in the world. But Toyota's success - as we all know - has been deteriorating over the past few years. Since 2007, Toyota has recalled millions upon millions of its cars, all because of various defects with the acceleration. The company's "runaway cars" have resulted in the deaths of several people, not to mention countless injuries. And Toyota still hasn't solved the problem. More cars were recalled as recently as last month (February 2011).

So how is it that GBMP can go around championing a philosophy that clearly doesn't do a company any good in the long run? Well, perhaps one reason is because GBMP is behind the times and stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the latest failures Toyota has experienced. They'd be correct if they said Toyota experienced amazing short-term profits because of LEAN, but recent events show that - in the long term - the philosophy didn't seem to fulfill its goal of "creating more value for the customers" (unless defective cars are considered 'value'). Clearly there is a flaw inherent in the philosophy. Perhaps LEAN takes efficiency to such an extreme that corners inevitably end up being cut and manufacturing quality becomes poor, the consequences of which can be very dangerous (in Toyota's case, drivers have been killed).

In retrospect, it surprises me that none of the [pet-supply company] employees (including myself) were astute enough to see the absurdity behind GBMP's insistence that LEAN was THE way to go. I mean, the lecture had missionary-like tones. LEAN was the answer to the struggling economy; God's gift to the corporate world; a miracle for any company that had stunted growth. But how were we supposed to swallow all this when LEAN'S biggest success story (Toyota) was failing before our very eyes? Why would [pet-supply company] or any other client of GBMP want to end up like Toyota? Are they OK with being responsible for deaths? Do they WANT blood on their hands?

Don't get me wrong: I don't mean to imply that GBMP has malicious intentions in traveling around from company to company, professing the greatness of LEAN. They obviously think this is in the best interest of a struggling company, and also in the best interest of our economy as a whole. I do, however, feel that GBMP is misguided. They apparently viewed the 2008 financial crisis as an indication that companies simply weren't being efficient enough. They didn't want to consider the possibility that the economic collapse was a direct result of flaws inherent in capitalism, a system that operates solely according to what minimizes cost and maximizes profit, a system that is programmed (like a computer program) to value profit over anything else. No, GBMP's answer to the crisis was that people weren't using an extreme enough form of capitalism, which is what LEAN basically is. But does this make any sense whatsoever? Well, maybe it does to GBMP, because they'll never admit that capitalism is flawed. They will cling to that system until the death, even when catastrophes like what we saw at Toyota occur.

Of course, it doesn't help the situation that (according to their website) GBMP lecturers are trained by Toyota directly, which (I guess) means they consider themselves disciples or something, spreading the good news about Toyota and its amazing success. But, again, Toyota ISN'T really a success. It's failing. So these GBMP preachers are basically like false prophets, traveling around from company to company, spreading the flawed LEAN philosophy like the plague.

I don't know what the answer is to the struggling economy and struggling companies, but a super-efficiency philosophy has too many costs attached to it, and I'm not talking about financial ones. I'm talking about human ones.


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  2. Some responses from various people...

    From John Ess:

    "Maybe they should advocate setting-by a little slot of "doing nothing" time, for simply thinking about things--even the virtues of toasting bread. I'm sure there's an unrevealed moral to this toast analogy. Perhaps it's this: Investing a little time in "doing nothing," will ensure that the toast is actually toasted. What am I saying here? Not sure really....except perhaps that quality is just as important as quantity, and in the final analysis has a dollar value too. Do the math on all those inferior Toyotas and the cost of their recalls (not to mention the loss of lives). Maybe this applies to life as well. I think I'll just go and toast myself some bread now.

    ....Oh yeah. The essay. Sorry Matt. I found it interesting and easy to read. A nice piece of work. Well done."

    From Susan Williams:

    "I got so interested in what you were saying that I forgot our assignment. There were a few passages that were a little rough but I bumped my way over them to follow your interesting thoughts. Er... are you tired of working for the company? I have a feeling that they will consider you a heretic and set you afire at the downsizing stake for your attitude that "thinking" should come before "doing" even among the lowly blue-collar workers much less among the "big" brains in the boardroom."