There seems to be a lot of mystery associated with how companies that make continuous quality improvement work actually do it. In his article Ten Common Misconceptions About Toyota Stewart Anderson sets the record straight about how Toyota actually works its magic. The gist of the article is that Toyota doesn’t follow some rigid set of rules mindlessly. They have a small number of guiding principles to guide them, and they apply them as consistently as is practical to do so

Toyota’s basic pattern for improving a process is based on a simple three-part model:

  1. Understanding the current condition.
  2. Developing and defining a target condition.
  3. Understanding and tackling problems which need to be overcome to move from the current condition to the target condition.

In other words, go from the status-quo to a new state that is better. All of the hubbub about Six Sigma, Lean, or any of the other approaches advanced during the past three-quarters of a century or so is nothing more than the attempt of managers who don’t really understand that this is all there is to it. The reason, I believe, is that our managers are taught by business school professors who are, philosophically, pragmatists. And pragmatism is all about eschewing guiding principles. In fact, they don’t even think there is such a thing as a principle. Pragmatists just want to know what works, not why it works.

This may sound like a good approach at first glance, but it’s a blind alley in the long run. For pragmatists — knowledge of the world is impossible to separate from actions upon it. There is no reality out there — both facts and values are products of men interacting with an environment and shaping it to their wills. If there are no facts per se, then what is the use of principles which are intended to guide action long-term? The goal of thought is merely to reconstruct the situation in order to solve the problem. If the proposal, when implemented, resolves the issue, then the idea is pragmatically true. Truth cannot be known in advance of action. One must first act and then think. Only then can reality be determined.

But there is a reality, and there are principles. Engineers and scientists — and Toyota — know that discovering what makes things tick is the only way to truly know how to make them better. This is the way to continuously improve.

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