Last Saturday I attended a mini-conference called Agile Tuning here in Cracow. Kanban was what was talked a lot about and there was the usual automotive reference: Toyota. There is a lot of fascination with Toyota in the agile community (and elsewhere) and it has always bothered me a bit, but I didn’t really understood why. Somehow this came to me during that event.

You see, there are two problems I have with this “Cult of Toyota”.

First, clearly some of stuff that is inspired by Toyota’s approach to making cars is about how they manufacture them. For example, the whole Kanban system has its roots at Toyota but it was used there to optimize the flow of material to the assembly line and thus the line’s effectiveness. However, software development is not, repeat, not about churning repeatable products from a production line composed of machines and people performing endlessly same tasks. Software development is an inventive process. Therefore we should rather look at similar fields, like product development – we should look at how Toyota designs their cars, not how they assemble them. This whole notion of looking at software as manufacturing is utterly nonsensical and ignores the reality of how software is created.

But, secondly, one thing that is clear to me is that whoever got fascinated with “Toyota way” clearly wasn’t a petrolhead. Toyotas may be reliable and Toyota surely is a great company in business terms, very well organized and managed but their products are anything but fascinating. Toyotas are generally boring small cars and family sedans, not very innovative, not very beautiful, just means of transport to get from point A to point B and not think about it too much. In a sense Toyotas are mediocrity perfected.

I personally would be way more interested in observing and trying to understand how companies that produce outstanding, breakthrough products – or at least products one can be passionate about – work. I would prefer to know how Tesla car came to be than how Toyota Corolla was design. But we don’t have to look at automotive industry for examples – within our own industry we have way lots of creativity and passion. Take Apple. It did produce more innovative, great products people do care about in the last 10 years than Toyota did through its entire corporate existence.

The only problem is that we will have to wait until Steve Jobs dies before management science would be finally able to analyze how Apple works on the inside. Before then his legendary paranoid secretiveness and unending myth-building would, I guess, prevent any serious study of this truly amazing company.

That doesn’t mean, however, that until then the best thing we can do is try to mimic Toyota’s assembly line.