Productivity is about quality, not quantity

Taichi Ono was the godfather of ‘lean’ systems. He revolutionised Toyota by introducing new ways of working.

A lot of his ideas were quite controversial at the time – none more so than a process known as ‘Stop the Line’.

The basic idea was very simple: if you identify a problem as soon as it occurs, you have a much better chance of understanding what caused it and how to prevent it happening again.

The best way to do this was by getting every employee involved. If they spotted a defect or noticed a problem – even something as simple as dropping a screw – they were all instructed to pull a cord that would stop the production line until the problem could be resolved.

For managers trained to believe that efficient manufacturing meant making as many things as possible as quickly as possible, ‘stop the line’ seemed like a dangerous heresy. Many of Toyota’s managers simply chose to ignore Ono’s recommendation.

Those who did implement it saw their worst misgivings confirmed. Productivity fell sharply: they were suddenly spending all their time fixing problems rather than making things. It looked like Ono’s idea was dead in the water.

But, gradually, the balance began to shift. The managers who had implemented ‘stop the line’ noticed that the stoppages became less frequent, because they had taken the time to identify and fix the underlying defects. They got more things right first time – and that was having a hugely beneficial effect on productivity. They were producing their goods faster, cheaper and more reliably than the managers who hadn’t implemented the scheme.

Slowly, but surely, everyone understood that Taichi Ono’s instincts were right.

‘Stop the line’ worked because it shifted the emphasis from quantity to quality and because it sent a powerfully motivating message to the people on the assembly line. Their job wasn’t just to make cars: it was to make cars better than anyone else – and every single person on the line was responsible for maintaining those standards.

If you look at the most successful organisations around the world, in any sector, you’re likely to find a similar approach. Sometimes it’s called ‘no-blame culture’, sometimes ‘black box thinking’, sometimes ‘empowerment’.

It doesn’t really matter what you call it.

What matters is that, if you want to improve your performance, you need to start by giving people the confidence to talk about what’s not working.

Until you do that, you’re just polishing a broken engine.


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