Despite the widespread popularization of the philosophy, principles and techniques of the Toyota Production System (TPS) as Lean thinking, few firms applying Lean have enjoyed anywhere near the same results as Toyota.
There is a simple reason – TPS as practiced by Toyota is a non-reproducible capability.
A firm’s capabilities are bundles of knowledge, skills, technologies, routines and resources. Distinctive capabilities are those which, due to their nature, are non-reproducible by competitors. TPS is such a capability.
What makes a capability distinctive and non-reproducible? Because it is synthesized over time from ever-evolving streams of knowledge, skills, and technologies, much of the accumulated experience that underpins TPS is tacit knowledge – knowledge that is implicit, rather than explicit, and therefore difficult to transmit or replicate.
Thus, while the visible aspects of TPS can be replicated – the tools and techniques – the capability as a whole cannot.
This is what one would expect – if a distinctive capability could be reproduced, then it is not distinctive and would confer no competitive advantage. Competitive advantage has its source in distinctive capabilities. That fact alone should suffice to explain why attempts to replicate TPS fall short of Toyota’s results, and why Toyota continues to maintain and grow its competitive advantage.