Winning attracts imitation. So companies like Apple, Google, Nintendo, Toyota and others are studied in minute detail to capture a bit of their magic, their secret sauce. But what happens when everyone blindly copies the winners?
Study after study shows that companies who simply copy others either fail or, at best, achieve parity. The companies that truly excel, the ones that are significantly and consistently more profitable, are those that create their own spaces - a la Blue Ocean Strategy.
Other studies demonstrate that successful firms consistently manage and resolve paradox and contradiction. Success comes not from blind imitation, but from systematically rethinking assumptions and choosing where the firm uniquely needs to be next.
Toyota is a great example of a company that both chooses its own path, while deftly managing paradox. It balances the "hard" of manufacturing with the "soft" of culture.
Authors Hirotaka Takeuchi, Emi Osono and Norihiko Shimizu studied Toyota Motor Corporation for six years from the inside out. Part of their conclusions are featured in a must-read article in the June 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review. From the introduction:
Stable and paranoid, systematic and experimental, formal and frank: The success of Toyota, a pathbreaking six-year study reveals, is due as much to its ability to embrace contradictions like these [discussed in the article] as to its manufacturing prowess.
What are some of the contradictions? Here are a few, paraphrased:
- We are cheap, though we invest big in people and capability
- We main hierarchy, yet we welcome "friendly fights"
- We communicate efficiently, though we actively encourage social networks
- We are efficient, though at times we invite "extras" to the conversation
I am looking forward to the authors' upcoming book (Extreme Toyota: Radical Contradictions that Drive Success at the World's Best Manufacturer) to learn more about how Toyota strikes its balance. I am especially eager because of their concluding advice:
People often ask us, “Tell me one thing I should learn from Toyota.” That misses the point. Emulating Toyota isn’t about copying any one practice; it’s about creating a culture. That takes time. It requires resources. And it isn’t easy.
In other words, don't implement TPS because they do. Don't guarantee lifetime employment because Toyota does. Don't copy their play book. Start with your people and customers. Figure out where your organization needs to go next to be successful - and then relentlessly create the culture that will take it there!