What can digital teams learn from Toyota? Here are 2 great lessons that often get overlooked

Much of modern digital product development today has its roots in lean manufacturing, made famous by Toyota.

The Lean Startup movement has redefined the way many modern companies work, but it was Toyota that led the way with their approach to managing systems of production to make the most of a skilled workforce and maximise efficiency.

There are many key points in Toyota’s philosophy, but two principles in particular stand out - despite often being overlooked.

#1 Stop everything to fix problems

In the early days of car manufacture, maintaining efficiency meant never stopping the production line.

The logic was simple: maintain a steady output flow so all effort is continually focused on production.

Sub-systems were invented to deal with defects, and a level of tolerance developed to manufacturing flaws, returns and replacement of faulty parts, etc.

Over time, however, this built-in expectation for defects grew to such a degree that the model was no longer working. When analysing efficiency across the entire cycle, the lost time/cost associated with those defects and replacement parts or cars was clearly a problem.

Enter the new Toyota model.

Their Kanban model and work pull system is now widely adopted by many manufacturers and digital product studios, but there was also a new approach to defects and quality that is still under-utilised - a zero tolerance policy.

If a problem or defect was found during production, the entire factory would pause till it was fixed (usually because, with a linear production line, everyone is affected by a problem in the chain).

At first this may sounds counter-intuitive. Surely this would continually stop the flow in the factory? But over time, Toyota found the number of defects decreased as the level of tolerance for imperfections diminished; they got quicker at dealing with issues and acknowledging the importance of a defect or issue when it occurred.

There is much we, as digital practitioners, can learn from this. Too often, bugs or issues are deferred and passed through a different work flow to be resolved. Instead, we should look to build a culture of quality first, and zero defect tolerance.

This may sound incompatible with lean, iterative delivery and releasing value quick, but this is about raising the base acceptance and quality benchmark of the products we create.

For our digital agency, there are several important outcomes:

  1. We get quicker at dealing with issues
  2. We increase our base quality acceptance
  3. We have fewer things hanging around so we have a truer idea of progress
  4. We have happier clients
Toyota's approach to defects is still under-utilised - a zero tolerance policy.
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#2 Never repeat a mistake

The next lesson we can take from Toyota is around learning from mistakes.

There are several modern techniques and processes for self-reflection, learning and team optimisation. Our product teams regularly perform retrospectives and identify problem areas to improve before their next session.

Toyota introduced a beautiful system for dealing specifically with issues, called 5 Whys. Every time there was an issue, a team leader would ask the team five "Why...?" framed questions, using each answer to drill further into why the problem occurred, until eventually they got to the underlying root cause.

Actions from this exercise would be focussed on addressing that root cause. More importantly, the team would then make a commitment to never repeat that one mistake.

For our agency, there are three important outcomes:

  1. The team make a commitment to never repeat that mistake
  2. It may take time, but ultimately all real issues in the product or system are eliminated one by one
  3. We have happier clients

Although Toyota’s methods are now common in digital production, many of the tools and techniques are applicable to any office environment where there are teams working collaboratively to get stuff done.

I'd strongly encourage you to read more about Toyota’s practices and give some of them a try.


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