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issue: January 2005 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
Implementing Toyota’s Product Development System

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by Michael N. Kennedy, consultant

Most people involved in manufacturing today are well versed in the Toyota Production System—the basis of lean production.

Michael Kennedy

The core concept is to eliminate any activity or expense that doesn’t add value, from a customer’s perspective, to an end product. In Japanese this waste is called “muda.” The Toyota Product Development System seeks to eliminate muda, too, but it does so in a way many western development engineers may not have considered.

Whether engineers in the United States or Europe are developing cars, software, appliances, or aerospace equipment, they usually follow pretty much the same process. They define several product concepts at the outset, and then select the one they think has the most promise. Design specifications are generated and partitioned into subsystems. Once subsystems are developed, a prototype is assembled and tested. If the result is not what was hoped for, the team doubles back to an earlier point in the process and starts again from there.

Toyota engineers take a different approach. Their overarching goal is to generate a constant flow of new products, so instead of assigning a team to focus on developing one in particular, work is concentrated at the subsystem level. The idea is that subsystems can be mixed and matched to create a whole host of possible new products, fostering creative possibilities.

Subsystems are reviewed and studied from virtually every perspective such as software, hardware, suppliers, and manufacturing, and are evaluated against broadly defined targets. Interfaces are kept loose because at this stage, the appliance model in which a subsystem might end up may not have been undetermined.

This approach has definite advantages when a new product reaches the testing stage. If a subsystem proves unworkable, a proven subsystem is always available, which eliminates the need to double back. All knowledge is captured and reused in future projects. Muda is seen as any activity that doesn’t provide knowledge that has value in the development of new products.

Even acknowledging that something won’t work is good because it identifies a path for engineers to avoid in the future. You might say, then, that the Toyota System is “knowledge-based” as contrasted with the usual western system, which is perhaps more aptly labeled “process-based.”

Here’s an example of how the Toyota system might work. Let’s say a company that develops and manufactures clothes dryers would like to introduce three new models in the coming year. The traditional approach would be to develop these models separately. But using the Toyota system, they’d be developed simultaneously.

To make the following example simple, let’s assume clothes dryers have five subsystems: a housing, a motor drive mechanism, a tub assembly, a heater assembly, and a control system. The initial focus would be developing alternatives of these. So, instead of developing three dryers separately, the company’s engineers might develop three interchangeable sets of the five different subsystems. In this case, a grand total of 243 distinct dryers theoretically could be constructed, assuming the assembly points for the five subsystems are standardized or can be scaled to fit.

Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of the Toyota system is that it lowers the risk of failure. Let’s assume, for example, three dryers are designed one at a time in the traditional way. Let’s also assume 80 percent of the components for each dryer are successfully designed. Since each dryer has five components, there’s only a 33-percent chance of success on the first go through for any project, and a 33-percent chance all three projects will fail.

Now let’s assume the three dryers use scaled interchangeable sets of components, each with the same 80-percent success rate. The chance any component will totally fail is only 0.8 percent, and the chance for project success is 96 percent. With redundancy in the form of at least one proven backup for each component, the risk goes to zero. In this way, the Toyota Development System virtually eliminates risk and promotes a myriad of creative possibilities for new products.

About the Author

Michael N. Kennedy is the author of Product Development for a Lean Enterprise, a book on Toyota’s product development system and how it can be implemented. As a consultant, Mr. Kennedy works extensively with the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences and with major manufacturing companies, including General Motors, United Technologies, Allied Signal, and Delphi, to assess and advance American product development. He also worked at Texas Instruments (TI) for 30 years, where he was the lead engineer on many developmental projects, including both missile system products and manufacturing systems.


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