DevOps inspiration from Toyota Production System and Lean considered harmful

Carsten Agger agger at
Sun May 15 17:22:43 UTC 2022

I wrote a rant against the idolization of Lean and Toyota among certain 
DevOps people.
Originally it was the synopsis for a more thorough article which I don't 
have the time to write, so instead I present only the conclusions. Maybe 
of interest to people here involved in programming (or union work and 
working conditions, for that matter) since DevOps is everywhere these 
days and has its good sides too.

    DevOps inspiration from Toyota Production System and Lean considered

*Note: This text was originally the synopsis for a much longer article 
which I intended to write as the followup to a lightning talk 
<> about the 
subject I did at my workplace. Acknowledging that I probably won’t get 
time to write the long version, I think this synopsis can stand pretty 
well on its own as a statement of intent.*

DevOps and DevOps-related practices has become a huge thing in the 
software industry. Elements of this, such as Continuous Integration and 
Continuous Deployment and the focus on monitoring production systems and 
metrics has resulted in large improvements in the handling of 
large-scale deployments. Especially, the act of deployment to 
production, in traditional systems often an error-prone process riddled 
with cataclysmic pitfalls and requiring huge amounts of overtime, is 
reduced to the trivial pushing of a button which can easily be done in 
normal office hours.

While the success of DevOps largely rests on technological improvements 
(containerization, orchestration systems, ease of scaling with cloud 
technologies) as well as process improvements originating in the Agile 
methodologies as they have developed since 2001 (with concepts such as 
pair programming, Test Driven Development and a general focus on 
automatization), much of the literature on DevOps contain a strong 
“ideological”, to the point of evangelization, promotion of the 
underlying philosophies of Lean production and management systems. One 
very conspicuous feature of this ideology is the canonization of 
Japanese management methods in general and the Toyota Production System 
(TPS) in particular as an epitome of thoughtful and benign innovation, 
empowering workers by incorporating their suggestions, achieving 
world-class production quality while simultaneously showing the maximum 
respect for each and every one of the humans involved.

This method (the TPS) was, the story goes, introduced in Western 
manufacturing and later in management, where its basic principles – 
improvement circles (kaizen), value stream mapping, Kanban, etc. has 
streamlined the basic business processes, improved productivity and 
reduced costs. Now, the narrative continues, DevOps will apply these 
same Lean lessons in the software industry, and we can expect similar 
vast improvements of productivity.

It is problematic, however, to try to “learn from Toyota” and from Lean 
Manufacturing without examining in detail how these work in practice, 
not least how they affect the people actually working in those systems. 
The authors behind some of the more popular DevOps introductions – The 
DevOps Handbook and the novels “The Phoenix Project” and “The Unicorn 
Project” – do not seem to have actually studied the implications of 
working under the TPS for Toyota’s Japanese employees in great detail, 
if at all, and seem to have all of their knowledge of the system from 
American management literature such as James Womack et al’s “The Machine 
that Changed the World”, basing their own Lean philosophies entirely on 
Toyota’s own public relations-oriented descriptions of their system.

This is problematic, since it overlooks the distinction between Toyota’s 
corporate representation of the intention of their production system – 
and the actual reality felt by automobile workers on the shop floors. 
Darius Mehri, who worked at Toyota as a computer simulation engineer for 
three years, has pointed out that the Western management movements 
inspired by Toyota have failed to understand a very fundamental 
distinction in Japanese culture and communication: The distinction 
between /tatemae/ (that which you are supposed to feel or do) and 
/honne/ (that which you really feel and do). Mehri posits that all 
Western proponents of The Toyota Way fail to realize that what they are 
describing is really the /tatemae/, what management will tell you and 
what workers will tell you in a formal context when their words might 
come back and harm them – while the /honne/ is much grittier, much 
darker and much more cynical.

In effect, proponents of Lean manufacturing and management styles have 
imported a kind of double-speak in a Japanese variant, but similar to 
the all too well-known difference between corporate communcations and 
what workers will confide in private. By doing so, they have inherited 
the fundamental lie that the priorities of the TPS are respect for each 
individual employee, partnership between management and workers, and 
involvement of each and every employee in the continuous improvement of 
the workplace; while its true priorities are a maximization of profit 
through the imposition of frenetic work speeds and very long working 
hours, discarding workers afflicted by the inevitable accidents and 
work-related diseases – and an “innovation” mainly driven by imitation 
of other manufacturers.

The truth about the very Toyota Production System that inspired the Lean 
movement is, leaving the /tatemae/ aside and looking at the /honne/, 
that these factories are driven unusually ruthlessly, with little or no 
regard for the human costs for the workers on the shop floor. Meetings, 
security briefings and announcements are routinely made after or before 
actual working hours, when workers are on their own time. Assembly lines 
are run at extreme speed in order to increase productivity, resulting in 
serious accidents, chronic work-related diseases as well as production 
defects. Even so, production targets are set unrealistically high, and 
the shop crews are not allowed to go home before they are met, often 
resulting in several hours of daily overtime. The “improvement circles” 
do exist and workers are indeed asked to contribute, but the end goal is 
always to increase production and increase line speed, never to create 
more humane working conditions on the shop floor. Such improvements are 
(if at all) introduced more grudgingly, e.g. as a consequence of labor 
shortages and worker dropout.

Lean, by lauding the TPS and uncritically buying its /tatemae/, is 
introducing a similar /honne/ of its own: It is, in reality, /not/ 
revolutionizing productivity, and for all its fair words does /not/ 
promote the respect of each worker as an individual. On the contrary, 
the relentless focus on constant “improvements” and constant demand that 
each employee rationalizes their work as much as possible has caused it 
to become known as “management by stress”. It may indeed focus on 
metrics and may indeed choose metrics to demonstrate its own success – 
while achieving results that range from average/no change to absolutely 

Proponents of DevOps should /stop/ presenting Toyota as any kind of 
ideal way of working – literally, a nightmarish grind with workers 
forced to do ten- or eleven hour shifts, ignoring accidents, running 
beside old and worn-out machinery in outrageously dangerous conditions 
is /not/ where we want to go. And the “ideal Toyota” with its 
“improvement kata” and “mutual respect” never existed except as the 
/tatemae/ to the cynical /honne/ of shop-floor reality. By importing the 
/tatemae/ as though it were Truth itself, the Lean movement has imported 
its double-speak – Lean or “management by stress” transitions can be 
very unpleasant indeed for employees, and while everything is shrouded 
in talk of partnership and mutual respect, the underlying motivation 
will often be money-saving through layoffs – the /honne/ to the Lean 
management bullshit’s /tatemae/.

That is to say: Perpetuating the lie about Toyota as a humane, 
innovative and respectful workplace is /positively harmful/ to the 
employees and processes afflicted by the proposed improvements, as the 
double-speak involved will inevitably rub off. The Toyota /tatemae/ was 
not, after all, designed to be practised literally. Accepting it at face 
value will only set us up for further double-speak in our own practice.

While the software industry can and should continue to evolve based on 
the philosophy enshrined in the Agile Manifesto 
<> and the improved work processes introduced 
by DevOps, we should eschew the mendacious narrative of Happy Toyota and 
reject the Lean philosophies that it founded.


Heather Barney and Sheila Nataraj Kirby: /Toyota Production System/Lean 
Manufacturing/ in “Organizational Improvement and Accountability: 
Lessons for Education from Other Sectors”, RAND Corporation 2004 

Ian Hampson: /Lean Production and the Toyota Production System – Or, the 
Case of the Forgotten Production Concepts/, Economic and Industrial 
Democracy & 1999 (SAGE, London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi), Vol. 20: 
369-391 (online: 

Jeffry S. Babb, Jacob Nørbjerg, David J. Yates, Leslie J. Waguespack: 
/The Empire Strikes Back: The End of Agile as we Know it?/, paper given 
at The 40th Information Systems Research Seminar in Scandinavia: IRIS 
2017 – Halden, Norway, August 6-9, 2017 (online: 

Darius Mehri: /The Darker Side of Lean: An Insider’s Perspective on the 
Realities of the Toyota Production System/, Academy of Management 
Perspectives *20*, 2, 2006 (online: 

Stuart D. Green: /The Dark Side of Lean Construction: Exploitation and 
Ideology/, proceedings IGLC-7, 1999, 21-32 (online: 

Satoshi Kamata: /Japan in the Passing Lane: : An Insider’s Account of 
Life in a Japanese Auto Factory/, Pantheon Books, New York (1982)

Gregory A. Howell and Glenn Ballard: /Bringing Light to the Dark Side of 
Lean Construction: A Response to Stuart Green/, proceedings IGLC-7, 
1999, 33-38 (online:;jsessionid=203907F7926472DB31BBE75D290A826B?doi= 

Will Johnson: /Lean Production – inside the real war on public 
education/, Jacobin Magazine, December 2012 (online: 

Mike Parker: /Management-By-Stress/, Catalyst Magazine /1/, 2, 2017 

Gene Kim, Jez Humble, Patrick Debois and John Willis: /The DevOps 
Handbook/, IT Revolution Press, Portland (OR) 2016.

Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford: /The Phoenix Project/, IT 
Revolution Press, Portland (OR) 2015.

Gene Kim: /The Unicorn Project/, IT Revolution Press, Portland (OR) 2019.

Phil Ledbetter: /Why Do So Many Lean Efforts Fail?/, 

Enid Mumford: “Sociotechnical Design: An Unfulfilled Promise or a Future 
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