Toyota Way, Lean Software Development… and Buddhism

In preparation to our holiday trip in Indonesia planned for August, I’ve taken to read stories and legends about Hinduism and Buddhism (though a Muslim country for 90% of the population, Indonesia is the host of Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world). The legends I’ve been reading contain striking similarities between Buddhism and the Toyota Way, which I have also recently read about. Indeed, those similarities are striking.

Go and see for yourself

In one of the stories, a wise lion (the Buddha, obviously) is the only one not to panic when hearing about the end of the world. He goes himself physically to the place where the rumor comes from to see that all the turmoil was caused by an apple falling near a rabbit. This is directly reminiscent of Genchi Genbutsu, or “Go and see for yourself”, one of the 14 principles in Toyota Way. It has also been quoted in the Lean Soft. Dev. books by Mary & Tom Poppendieck.

Change and continuous improvement

In Buddhism, some say “it is all about change” or “the only permanent thing is that everything changes all the time” (I hope I’m getting this right); this is called Anicca. It may sound a bit funny to most people, but Rebirth can be very well considered an evaluation of the progress you made (or didn’t make) during your previous life. A wise person should take this as an opportunity to reflect and find ways to get better next time. In the case of Toyota, this corresponds to at least three (!) of the principles:

  • Create a continuous process flow to bring problems to the surface”
  • Standardized tasks and processes are the foundation for continuous improvement and employee empowerment
  • “Become a learning organization through relentless reflection (hansei) and continuous improvement (kaizen).”

Long-term view

In the Toyota Way, the very first principle is “Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.” With Buddhism, though short-term is important, long-term is something that a trained person should be able to perceive: “We cannot see the long-term effect of karma, but the Buddha and His prominent disciples who have developed their minds are able to perceive directly the long-term effects.”


Buddhism did a lot to make clear we should count firstly on ourselves. It generally remains silent on the presence of a higher-being. There is nothing that implies our lives are deterministic, so we can, and we should rely on ourselves for making progress. Similarly, one of Toyota’s principles is empowerment of people already in the company. “Standardized tasks and processes are the foundation for continuous improvement and employee empowerment.” While there are still managers in the company, the employees themselves are the ones that help make real progress. With Lean, Scrum and Crystal, it is regularly explain that People are the First-Order Effect, and that process should mostly help them work, as opposed to tell them what to do.

Is Buddhism a religion?

Buddhism was not originally conceived as a religion. You can have your own religion in addition to it — though it is by no means necessary. Still, most people would consider Buddhism a full-fledged religion, and certainly most actual variant of Buddhism really religions. Similarly, agile methods such as Lean Soft. Dev. and Scrum do not brand themselves are methodologies, but rather as frameworks. You are supposed to build you own, specific methodology within those frameworks, but they certainly do not tell you all you need. Still, most observers (and many practitioners) think that they are, indeed, real methodologies. And it is arguable that some agile methodologies such as XP certainly give enough details to be considered real methodologies.

Final words

It is very tempting to conclude that Toyota Way and Lean Manufacturing could only have been popular in Japan, a country were most people would consider themselves Buddhists. I won’t go that way, as Japan is certainly not the only Buddhist country (China and Korea come to mind). And also because it was originally an American, W. Edwards Deming, that provided Toyota with the theory of what later because the Toyota Production System. Still, a fact is that Toyota Way and Lean was created in Japan. Maybe the cultural context made it easier.

About Eric Lefevre-Ardant

Independent technical consultant.
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