A softly spoken Toyota sensei once told me, “The teacher will appear when the student is ready.” It was a polite way of telling me not to rush my learning and to ‘master’ my trade. Quite a profound principle it transpired. My experience with this sensei gave me great insight into how to operate a system. He taught me many things using a mix of instruction, the use of “sayings” and a grounding in management principles. It was his lessons that have haunted me for many years.

A principle that is very relevant today is his view that “If you cut the candy the face remains the same.” It relates to what the British know as a seaside confectionary – a long rod of candy that has an image that runs through the middle of it (often the name of a seaside town or an image). As such if you cut the rock [the candy] you would still see the image. He used this image to say that, wherever you go in the world, standard work and methods of improvement should be the same.

His principle encapsulates many others that form the Toyota Way and include the use of the scientific method, respect for people and the belief that “there can be no improvement without standards.” These principles guide behaviour, create a common platform and a language for managers everywhere in the world regardless of the country and the local language spoken.

The point is very relevant to multi-national businesses today; language and culture issues can be managed but it is not wise to call the same practice by different names – how could any manager making a decision ever be certain the operating system would change and respond in the expected way?

They probably could not. Being sympathetic to local cultures and language is acceptable but full autonomy for parts of a profit-making business can add waste, create confusion, lead to slow decision-making, and risk poor customer service levels.

Just look around. The original Japanese 5S’s of workplace discipline (Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu and Shitsuke) have been westernised (Sort, Set In Order, Shine, Standardise, and Sustain) but then we have extended these systems to become 6S or diversified them into new language such as calling the same approach CANDO. Unless every part of a multinational organisation adopts the same methods then we have systems that will grow out of control and use the same term to describe completely different activities.

The issue of internationalisation and standardisation is therefore a critical capability that must be mastered for a system to be managed effectively and for staff to share ideas in a controlled manner. Failure to design processes, to control improvements and to share best practice via a common Promotion Office with one common improvement language generates the risk that each business learns at a local level, speaks with a local dialect but has nothing to offer other group sites.

The balance and trade off is to allow local autonomy but to call common group practices by the same name – the face must remain the same. Get it right and innovation levels can be stimulated at each local factory and an effective learning/ sharing system means new ideas can become proven SOPs the world over.