The Underpinnings of Performance Sustainability

Special Thanks to Max Allway for his contribution on this Post

Sustainability cannot be mandated, it must be developed over time, and by taking these often overlooked critical actions, you will be heading the right direction.

The difficult, often misunderstood, yet critical actions of successful improvement environments can be found in a few businesses.  Toyota is, perhaps the embodiment of most, if not all, of these critical actions.  Throughout the past several years, nearly every business and government organization has embarked on various operational improvement journeys.  Some have used the Lean methodology approach (the name popularized by Womack and Jones in their book “The Machine That Changed The World”, with the methodology developed by Tiichi Ohno of Toyota back in the 1950’s).  Other organizations have used the Six Sigma methodology (developed by Mikel Harry while at Motorola, but popularized by Larry Bossidy at Allied Signal and Jack Welch at GE).  Yet other organizations have fed from the trough of the multitude of consulting groups which have developed their own variation of operational improvement.  The tactical similarities are striking; the differences are meaningful, and the often missing underpinnings are alarming when we strive toward “performance sustainability”. Regardless of the improvement methodology, and their differences, the missing underpinnings must be addressed if performance sustainability is to be achieved.

In an article entitled “Decoding The DNA of The Toyota Production System”, written by Steven Spear and H. Kent Bowen, and published in the Harvard Business Review (1999), I found the best explanation of what I consider to be the necessary underpinnings of performance sustainability within the Toyota environment.  These underpinnings are transferable to nearly every other organization.  Earlier in my career, while working at Toyota from 1987 to 1996 and having the good fortune to work with a team of highly proficient professionals, I was heavily involved with moving through the process of developing, building, and launching a new facility in the United States.  During this process, it was often painstakingly difficult trying to understand why my teammates (mostly Japanese) were insisting on following a certain rigor in everything we did.  It wasn’t until late in the game that I began to understand how the pieces of the puzzle were beginning to form a meaningful configuration.  In this case, the puzzle took the shape of a well oiled factory and supply chain which operated in a highly lean fashion on a Just-In-Time (JIT) basis.  The success (and sustainability) of this business has since been confirmed by the many expansions and the impact it has had on the market.  My experience is representative of only one of several operations Toyota and its’ people have developed; all of which have had experienced similar success.

If you run a factory, corporation, government agency, military installation, etc., perhaps you have asked yourself: “How do I get sustainable results”?  This article is intended to draw upon the “Decoding the DNA of The Toyota Production System” article, and couple that with my own experience while at Toyota.  There is no question that this company has, over several years, crafted a business methodology which has worked and is working.  For this reason, there is a lot to learn, much of which can be directly applied to businesses and organizations regardless of where they are located.  Your organization does not have to be located inJapan, nor does it have to emulate the Japanese culture.  After all, many of theToyota facilities are being built close to their growing markets throughout theUS,Canada and Europe.

Upon close examination of what lies beneath the surface of the often misunderstood Toyotaoperational façade, we uncover the critical objectives, approaches, and expected results which bring the organizational focus and alignment required to create performance sustainability.


Regardless of the business or organization, what should we strive to achieve?

  • Attainment of “the ideal” which is pervasive – keeping an eye on that which is envisioned as “ideal” and void of all non-value added work
  • Strictly adhering to the “problem solving rules”– there are various variations of problem solving approaches.  It is important to select the approach which is appropriate for the specific problem
  • Enabling employees, product/service or machines to be capable of:
    • Having the features and performance the customer expects
    • Being delivered one at a time
    • Being supplied on demand as requested
    • Being delivered immediately (with short cycle time)
    • Being produced without waste of labor, materials, or other resources
    • Being produced in a safe environment
  • Meeting cost, quality, and delivery objectives
    • Cost down
    • Quality up
    • Delivery when needed in version requested


What are the drivers?

  • Strategically align targets which are established for every level of the organization
  • Track metrics which are specifically structured to drive/encourage desired behavior
  • Institute progress monitoring to targets
  • Develop incentives which are aligned to actions
  • Make constant innovation and improvement a normal part of everyday life
  • Ensure that activities and their connections are rigidly scripted
  • Institute operational processes which are highly flexible and adaptive to changing needs
  • Employ a rigorous scientific experiment methodology for problem solving that enforces consistent thinking and which requires a detailed assessment of the current state, plus a plan for improvement
  • Create an employee adherence to this problem solving approach which causes an affect similar to a learning organization


What should we expect?

  • Every activity is specified
  • Every customer-supplier relationship is unambiguous and direct
  • Products and services follow a direct pathway
  • All improvements are made according to the rigid problem solving method at the lowest possible level in the organization
  • Continual (and immediate) response to problems enabling the otherwise rigid system to be flexible enough to accommodate changing circumstances
  • Cost, quality, and delivery objectives are met

Leading Lean companies which have been able to follow these elements,  have  transformed themselves into a systems thinking environment.  Additionally, they have routinely evaluated everything they do by addressing end-to-end flows.  They draw on this perspective to focus their resources and align them with the deeply embedded objectives and problem solving approach.  We have developed a holistic and structured framework to guide clients (commercial and governmental) through this often daunting transformational journey.  This methodology accelerates the implementation of “the critical actions” by providing a change  framework which integrates process, people, technology, and physical infrastructure efforts.  This method incorporates capability development, ownership building, and program stewardship.

By taking on the objectives, approaches, and striving for the results discussed above, your business or organization will be executing the critical actions which will eventually lead to performance sustainability. These critical actions will work with all the preferred improvement methodologies (Lean, Six Sigma, LSS, BPR, others), regardless if you are in the business of manufacturing, banking, healthcare, retail, or a government agency.

Close the gaps you may have experienced in your improvement programs by taking the critical actions.


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