14 Principles of the Toyota Production System: A Comprehensive Guide

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Welcome to an in-depth exploration of the 14 Principles of the Toyota Production System (TPS), a pioneering framework that has fundamentally transformed manufacturing practices across the globe. Originating from Toyota, a company that metamorphosed from a small loom-making business into an automotive behemoth, TPS serves as the bedrock of what is commonly referred to as Lean Manufacturing.

The brainchild of Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota, this system is not merely a set of operational guidelines; it is a holistic philosophy that transcends the mechanics of production lines. The 14 principles that constitute TPS focus on a balanced amalgamation of technical efficiency and human-centric management.

This guide is designed to dissect each of these 14 principles meticulously, offering both theoretical understanding and practical applicability. Whether you are a novice intrigued by manufacturing philosophies or a seasoned professional aiming to refine your expertise, this article promises a thorough comprehension of the Toyota Production System’s core tenets. Prepare to embark on an academic journey that delves into both the foundational philosophy and the pragmatic facets of one of the most impactful manufacturing systems ever devised.

Historical Background

Brief History of Toyota as a Company


Toyota’s journey is a remarkable tale of transformation and resilience. Founded in 1937 by Kiichiro Toyoda, the company initially branched out from Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, a successful loom manufacturing business started by Kiichiro’s father, Sakichi Toyoda. The transition from textile machinery to automobiles was challenging, but it was a risk that paid dividends. Within a decade, Toyota had produced its first car, the Model AA, and embarked on an endeavor that would eventually redefine automotive manufacturing.

Left: Sakichi Toyoda (1867-1930). Right: Kiichiro Toyoda (1894-1952)

Evolution of the Toyota Production System

The post-World War II era was a turbulent time for Japan. Resources were scarce, and the nation was rebuilding. It was during this period that the seeds of the Toyota Production System were sown. Initially, the system was an effort to eliminate waste (‘Muda‘ in Japanese) and optimize processes. However, it soon evolved into a comprehensive set of guidelines that integrated various aspects like ‘Just-in-Time‘ production, ‘Kaizen‘ (continuous improvement), and ‘Jidoka‘ (automation with a human touch).

What started as a necessity due to resource constraints became a well-oiled machine, fine-tuned to achieve operational excellence. By the 1970s, the system had matured, and other industries began to take notice. It wasn’t long before the principles of TPS were being applied beyond automotive manufacturing, giving birth to what we now know as Lean Manufacturing.

Introduction to Taiichi Ohno, the Man Behind TPS

Taiichi Ohno, often referred to as the father of the Toyota Production System, was instrumental in its development. An industrial engineer by training, Ohno joined Toyota in 1943 and quickly rose through the ranks. Frustrated by inefficiencies and inspired by American supermarkets’ stocking methods, he envisioned a system where each stage of the production process was seamlessly connected, waste was minimized, and human potential was maximized.

Ohno’s philosophies weren’t just theoretical; they were deeply practical. He introduced revolutionary concepts like Kanban (visual signaling) to manage workflow and emphasized the importance of empowering workers to stop the production line if they identified a problem, fostering a culture of quality and continuous improvement.

His work laid the foundation for the 14 principles that would later be documented and popularized, encapsulating the essence of the Toyota Production System. Taiichi Ohno’s legacy is not just a set of operational guidelines but a transformative approach to management and manufacturing that has stood the test of time.

The Core Philosophy of TPS

Foundational Ideas That Drive TPS

The Toyota Production System is not just a set of operational procedures; it’s a holistic philosophy that permeates every aspect of manufacturing. At its core, TPS aims to provide “the highest quality, at the lowest cost, in the shortest lead time,” but it goes beyond mere efficiency metrics. It encompasses a dual focus—optimizing resources and respecting humanity.

Two central tenets underpin this philosophy:

  1. Just-in-Time (JIT): This principle advocates producing only what is needed, when it is needed, and in the amount needed. It’s not just about reducing inventory; it’s about creating a flow that responds dynamically to customer demand.
  2. Jidoka (Automation with a Human Touch): This is the concept of building quality into the product at every step. In a Jidoka system, any employee has the authority—and the responsibility—to halt production if a quality issue arises, ensuring that problems are addressed immediately, not after the fact.

These ideas come together to create a system that is both efficient and humane, focused not just on the end product but also on the process and the people involved.

How TPS Differs from Traditional Manufacturing Systems

Traditional manufacturing systems often operate on a ‘push’ model, where products are made based on forecasted demand and then pushed into the market. This leads to high inventory levels, increased carrying costs, and a greater risk of waste due to obsolescence. Quality control in such systems is often a separate stage, meaning defects may not be discovered until after a product is manufactured, leading to costly recalls or rework.

TPS turns this model on its head with its ‘pull’ system, where products are made as they are needed, thereby reducing inventory and waste. Quality is built into every step of the process, not added on at the end. Additionally, TPS goes beyond mere operational efficiency to include elements of human resource management. It respects the intelligence and skills of the workforce, encouraging continuous improvement (‘Kaizen’) and problem-solving at all levels.

In essence, while traditional systems focus on mass production, TPS focuses on ‘lean production.’ It aims for the most efficient use of resources across all aspects of the operation, from the shop floor to the executive boardroom, and it achieves this without sacrificing the dignity or development of its employees.

The 14 Principles: An Overview

The Toyota Production System is built on 14 foundational principles that serve as the pillars of its philosophy. These principles range from long-term thinking and continuous improvement to respecting your extended network of partners and suppliers. They are not standalone ideas but interconnected facets of a cohesive system designed to maximize efficiency and human potential.

  1. Long-Term Philosophy: The foundation upon which all else is built.
  2. Continuous Process Flows: To bring problems to the surface.
  3. Pull Systems: To avoid overproduction.
  4. Leveling Workloads: Also known as ‘Heijunka.’
  5. Quality Culture: Building a culture focused on quality.
  6. Standardized Tasks: The foundation for continuous improvement.
  7. Visual Management: Making the invisible, visible.
  8. Use Reliable Technology: That serves your people and processes.
  9. Grow Leaders: Who thoroughly understand the work.
  10. Develop People: Who follow your company’s philosophy.
  11. Respect Partners & Suppliers: By challenging them.
  12. ‘Genchi Genbutsu’: Go and see for yourself.
  13. Consensus Decisions: Slow decision making, fast implementation.
  14. Solve Root Problems: To drive organizational learning.

These principles interrelate in a way that reinforces one another; for instance, the focus on long-term philosophy (Principle 1) naturally complements the idea of continuous improvement (Principle 2). Together, they form a symbiotic relationship that makes the sum greater than the individual parts, offering a transformative blueprint for operational excellence and human-centered management.

Principle 1: Base Management Decisions on Long-Term Philosophy

The first principle of TPS urges companies to prioritize long-term goals over short-term financial gains. The philosophy encourages businesses to ask the question: “Where do we want to be in 10, 20, or even 50 years?” and then align their strategies, operations, and daily management decisions accordingly. This long-term perspective provides a stable foundation that can withstand market fluctuations, economic downturns, and other challenges that may arise.


An excellent example of this principle in action is Toyota’s commitment to environmental sustainability. Despite the initial costs, Toyota invested heavily in hybrid technology, culminating in the launch of the Prius in 1997. This long-term vision has not only given them a competitive edge but also positioned them as leaders in sustainable automotive technology.

Principle 2: Create Continuous Process Flows

The second principle focuses on creating a continuous flow in the production process to bring issues to the surface. This means designing operations in such a way that each component moves smoothly from one stage to the next without delays or bottlenecks. Continuous flows help in quickly identifying problems and ensuring that they are addressed before they escalate.


In healthcare, Virginia Mason Medical Center adopted TPS principles to improve its services. By creating continuous process flows in its pharmacy operations, the hospital reduced the time to fill medication orders by over 85%, improving both efficiency and patient safety.

Principle 3: Use Pull Systems

The third principle of TPS advocates the use of ‘pull’ systems to align production with demand. Unlike traditional ‘push’ systems, where production is based on forecasts, pull systems produce only what is needed when it is needed. This approach minimizes waste, reduces storage costs, and improves cash flow.


In the realm of software development, the pull system is often manifested through Agile methodologies. Teams work on tasks that are pulled from a backlog based on current needs and priorities, allowing for more flexibility and responsiveness to changes in requirements or market conditions.

Principle 4: Level Out the Workload (Heijunka)

Also known as “Heijunka,” this principle advocates for leveling out the workload in a way that optimizes resources and minimizes stress on both employees and machinery. By distributing workloads evenly, companies can improve efficiency, reduce fluctuations and variations, and create a more predictable, stable operation. This approach helps to avoid the traditional boom-and-bust cycle seen in many industries.


In retail, inventory management can often be a challenge. Costco, however, employs a leveling strategy by limiting its stock to a smaller number of items in higher quantities. This practice allows for smoother operations, predictable restocking, and ultimately, lower costs that are passed on to the consumer.

Principle 5: Build a Culture of Quality

This principle emphasizes the importance of quality in every aspect of the business. From the initial stages of product development to the final customer interaction, a culture of quality ensures that high standards are maintained. Employees are empowered and trained to identify and solve quality issues, thus making quality assurance a collective responsibility.


The airline industry is highly regulated to ensure safety and quality. Southwest Airlines has built a culture of quality by empowering its employees to take responsibility for any quality-related concerns they observe, leading to one of the best safety records in the industry.

Principle 6: Standardized Tasks

Standardized tasks are the cornerstone of continuous improvement and employee empowerment in TPS. By establishing a standard way of doing things, employees have a baseline from which they can suggest improvements. Standardization ensures consistency in product quality and allows for more accurate metrics and evaluations.


In the food industry, franchises like McDonald’s employ standardized tasks to ensure that every Big Mac is the same, whether you’re buying it in New York or Tokyo. This standardization is vital for brand consistency and customer satisfaction, and it provides a base for continuous improvement initiatives.

Principle 7: Use Visual Controls

The principle of using visual controls, often called “Visual Management,” is about making the state of operations easily understandable at a glance. This is achieved through the use of boards, charts, and other visual indicators that quickly convey information, allowing for immediate understanding and action. The principle is rooted in the belief that problems can’t be solved if they aren’t visible.


Hospital Emergency Rooms often employ visual control boards to track patient flow, the status of medical supplies, and staff availability. This immediate, visual information allows for quicker decision-making and more efficient allocation of resources.

Principle 8: Use Reliable Technology

This principle advocates for the use of proven, reliable technology that serves your people and processes. While the allure of new, cutting-edge technology can be tempting, TPS emphasizes that technology should assist, not complicate, the work process. The focus is on reliability and long-term utility rather than short-term gains.


In the shipping industry, Maersk Line emphasizes the use of reliable technology by investing in robust container tracking systems that ensure the safe and timely delivery of goods. This focus on reliability enhances customer trust and operational efficiency.

Principle 9: Grow Leaders from Within

One of the unique aspects of TPS is its emphasis on leadership development. This principle advocates for growing leaders from within the organization who deeply understand the work, the company’s philosophy, and its people. By nurturing internal talent, companies ensure a consistent culture and a deep reservoir of institutional knowledge.


General Electric (GE) is well-known for its leadership development programs. By investing in comprehensive training and rotational assignments, GE has successfully developed a cadre of leaders who understand the multifaceted aspects of the business, ensuring continuity and adherence to the company’s core values.

Principle 10: Develop Exceptional People

The tenth principle of TPS emphasizes the importance of human capital. The system encourages organizations to invest in their people by providing opportunities for continuous learning and development. Through training, mentorship, and hands-on experience, employees are groomed to become exceptional contributors who not only excel in their tasks but also align with the company’s philosophy and culture.


Tech giant Google is renowned for its employee development programs, offering a wide range of training courses, mentorship opportunities, and even “20% time” for employees to work on projects that interest them. This investment in people has made Google one of the most innovative companies in the world.

Principle 11: Respect Partners and Suppliers

This principle underscores the importance of having a respectful, mutually beneficial relationship with suppliers and partners. Rather than just viewing them as external entities, TPS encourages treating them as extensions of the company. This collaborative approach not only improves the quality and efficiency of the supply chain but also fosters long-term relationships built on trust and shared objectives.


Toyota itself sets an example in this regard by involving its suppliers in the product development process, even sharing its TPS principles with them. This creates a win-win situation where suppliers are motivated to offer their best products and services.

Principle 12: Go and See for Yourself (Genchi Genbutsu)

This principle, known as “Genchi Genbutsu,” advises managers and employees to go to the source to find facts and make correct decisions. Instead of relying solely on reports or data, this ‘go and see’ approach allows for a deeper, first-hand understanding of situations, making problem-solving more effective and grounded in reality.


In the hospitality industry, Marriott International employs this principle by encouraging managers to spend time in various roles within the hotel—from housekeeping to customer service—to better understand the operations and challenges at the ground level.

Principle 13: Make Decisions by Consensus (Nemawashi)

Known as “Nemawashi” in Japanese, this principle advocates for making decisions through consensus. While this may slow down the decision-making process initially, it results in quicker implementation because everyone involved understands and agrees on the course of action. The idea is to gather input from all stakeholders before making a final decision, ensuring that different perspectives are considered and potential pitfalls are identified.


The outdoor clothing and gear company, Patagonia, practices consensus decision-making by involving employees at various levels in key decisions. This has led to innovative and sustainable business practices, such as the decision to use only organic cotton, that are aligned with the company’s long-term vision and values.

Principle 14: Continuously Solve Root Problems (Hansei)

The last principle, often termed “Hansei” or reflection, emphasizes the importance of getting to the root cause of problems and solving them. This is not about quick fixes or superficial solutions but involves deep analysis to understand what is fundamentally causing the issue. Once the root cause is identified, measures are taken to prevent the problem from reoccurring, thus contributing to continuous improvement.


In healthcare, the Mayo Clinic often employs root cause analysis when dealing with medical errors or system inefficiencies. By dissecting the issue to its core, the clinic has been able to implement changes that significantly improve patient care and operational efficiency.


In this comprehensive guide, we’ve journeyed through the 14 Principles of the Toyota Production System (TPS)—a framework that revolutionized not just the automotive industry but also set the standard for operational excellence across various sectors. From fostering a long-term philosophy to solving problems at their root, each principle serves as a cog in the well-oiled machine that is TPS.

These principles aren’t just a checklist to be ticked off; they are interwoven into the very fabric of an organization’s culture. They offer a holistic approach to business management, emphasizing quality, efficiency, and most importantly, respect for people. Whether you’re in manufacturing, healthcare, or any other sector, these principles can be adapted to improve your operations, foster innovation, and create a workplace where everyone is a stakeholder in success.

As you move forward, remember that implementing TPS is not a one-time project but a continuous journey. It requires an unyielding commitment to improvement and a willingness to adapt. As Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, once said, “Where there is no standard, there can be no kaizen (improvement).”

Thank you for joining us on this enlightening journey through the 14 Principles of the Toyota Production System. We hope this guide serves as a valuable resource as you strive for operational excellence in your own organization.



Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft is a seasoned continuous improvement manager with a Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma. With over 10 years of real-world application experience across diverse sectors, Daniel has a passion for optimizing processes and fostering a culture of efficiency. He's not just a practitioner but also an avid learner, constantly seeking to expand his knowledge. Outside of his professional life, Daniel has a keen Investing, statistics and knowledge-sharing, which led him to create the website learnleansigma.com, a platform dedicated to Lean Six Sigma and process improvement insights.

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