Due a misunderstanding of what lean manufacturing really is, many believe its ultimate goal is to make things cheaply and cut every corner possible. So it is understandable that those who have this impression of lean will think it’s the reason why Toyota is having the problems it is currently having.

The reality of those problems is not rooted in lean. In fact, being lean is what has kept Toyota competitive and kept it from following the path of Chrysler and GM. Its agility in quickly adjusting its production volumes and shift the model mix to match the market is a testament to the effectiveness of lean at Toyota. The implementation of Hoshin Kanri, where every plant, department, and person at Toyota is aiming for common goals, and using standardized communication is a great reason why Toyota is successful. However, in a perfect world Toyota would also have its entire supply base aligned with their goals and standardized practices… and that’s where the problem is rooted.

The lack of Hoshin Kanri at many suppliers made them business gluttons and prevented them from effectively aligning their internal goals across the organization. Many became highly exposed to Chrysler and GM due to a lack of solid diversification strategies and inefficient product and plant implementations. Added to the sporadic implementation of Lean and poor standardization, these suppliers were put under immense cost pressures to survive and remain solvent.

The irony in all this is that most auto manufacturers certify their supply base, however there is only so much that can be expected, and in most cases an ISO/TS 16949 certification with some minor adherences to OEM processes is all that can realistically be expected from them. Outsourcing components is the only way to remain competitive in this market, and if an OEM like Toyota were to demand strict adherence to their standards and corporate goals, then they would probably find themselves unable to certify suppliers, and worse yet, would probably lose ground competitively due to the obvious in- sourcing that would take place.

The string of recalls, which has visibly hit Toyota, will not end with them. Every automaker which relies on a supply base which was almost decimated by the global recession and the near collapse of GM and Chrysler will be in the news soon. (Trust me on this one.)