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Toyota’s lessons for the back office

October 9, 2009

The fundamental thesis this blog seeks to prove is that the principles of the Toyota Production System (TPS) can be applied to back office processes in accounting and IT as fruitfully as they can to the assembly line.

And the key to translating TPS from the assembly line to the cubicle is information design, the field of study pioneered by William Playfair, Charles Joseph Minard and Edward Tufte.  To my knowledge, Tufte has never commented on the role of information design in TPS (or lean manufacturing) and Playfair and Minard, of course, both died before the automobile was invented.

It is not always obvious how to translate TPS concepts developed for a manufacturing environment to the back office.  Assembly lines are tangible, visible and repetitive.  Manufacturing processes are life-sized and happen in full view.  On the other hand, back office processes are conceptual, concealed and, when knowledge workers are involved, one-off or exceptional.

On the assembly line, the hand-off from one work area to the next can be observed by anyone in the vicinity.  In the back office, most of the action happens in a CPU or a network and the handoff from one work area to the next might occur invisibly across a fiber optic cable between Boston and Bangalore.

An andon cord.  Rarely seen in the cubicle.

An andon cord. Rarely seen in the cubicle.

In the back office, where do you put the andon cord?  How do you achieve continuous flow with a monthly close?  How do you standardize business processes that seem to present new challenges every day?  These are the kinds of questions we plan to address in future posts.

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