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Operations management research
in the automotive sector
Some contemporary issues and future
Margaret Taylor and Andrew Taylor
Bradford School of Management, University of Bradford, Bradford, UK

Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to take a fresh look at some of the contemporary operations
management (OM) research issues in the automotive sector in order to identify potential future
research directions. It addresses the question of what remains to be investigated after so many decades
of enquiry.
Design/methodology/approach – A review confined to recent articles published in some of the
most mainstream OM journals, seeking to identify research gaps in the field.
Findings – The paper reviews some of the most prevalent misperceptions about Japanese production
management (JPM) and the Toyota production system. It observes that much of contemporary OM
research in the automotive industry still wrestles with the complexities of JPM approaches, whose
richness of nuance and complexity appear to be always just beyond the authors’ grasp. Argues for the
use of alternative theoretical lenses to help uncover novel insights.
Originality/value – The paper reaffirms the author’s overarching research mission which is to
contribute to the improved practice of OM by conducting rigorous research in the field. It underscores
the need for novel approaches to OM research in the automotive sector. This is particularly apposite at
a time when the differences between production systems seem to be disappearing and when some
recent empirical evidence suggests that lean management may only be skin deep in many companies
which rely too heavily on consultants to the detriment of depth of knowledge and employee
Keywords Manufacturing systems, Production management, Lean production, Automotive industry,
Operations management, Japanese management styles
Paper type Viewpoint

The automobile industry is huge; it is commonly split into two categories; commercial
vehicles and cars. While general motors (GM) is the world’s largest automobile
producer overall (Datamonitor, 2006), the situation in the car market is somewhat
different. For example, although GM, Chrysler and Ford dominated the global car
market over half a century ago in 1955 (BBC News, 2007), market conditions have
changed dramatically such that by 2005 Japanese car companies had a large share of
International Journal of Operations & the global car market, e.g. having 43 per cent market share in the USA (BBC News,
Production Management 2007). Recently, Toyota is the world’s leading car manufacturer with approximately
Vol. 28 No. 6, 2008
pp. 480-489 17 per cent market share, followed by GM and Ford who have approximately 15 and
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
12 per cent market share, respectively. Forecasts predict that the global car industry
DOI 10.1108/01443570810875322 will be worth $1,066.3 billion by 2010 (Datamonitor, 2006).
Contemporary issues OM research in
Continuing emergence of high quality empirical studies grounded in the automotive the automotive
sector points to questions about what remains to be investigated after so many decades
of enquiry. Even to attempt to provide an overview of contemporary research issues is sector
a daunting challenge, albeit an exciting one. In this regard, while the publication of
Sugimori et al.’s (1977) article was hailed as “the first substantial explanation in
English of the Toyota production system (TPS)” (New, 2007, p. 3552), research 481
continues to the present day into Toyota production system (TPS) and its variants, and
into alternative automotive production systems. Those of us who have grappled with
some of the foundational elements of the TPS know only too well how complex,
inter-related and context-dependent they can be. Indeed, Holweg (2007) reminds us of
the misperceptions of TPS that were prevalent in earlier decades, when much-touted
explanations of Japanese competitive advantage in the auto sector were attributed,
inter alia, to their use of robotics, cultural differences which could not be replicated,
the role of Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry, lower wage rates and
favourable exchange rates.
While subsequent research has shown the fallacy of these beliefs, Holweg’s historical
account implicitly underscores the need for in-depth empirical investigation that is
based upon alternative theoretical lenses, a theme to which Schonberger (2007) also
alludes in his review of the evolution of Japanese production management (JPM).
Schonberger notes the irony of the “planeloads of study missions” to Japan in the 1980s
to examine first hand the JPM practices, but instead of “seeing” JPM as a holistic concept
consisting of a mutually reinforcing set of best practices, most Western observers were
blinded by their operations management (OM) mind-set of functional separation and silo
mentality. Thus, what they observed led to three, largely separate, strains of JPM
centring upon employee involvement, quality and lean production, respectively.
However, as we now know, as the ideas underpinning JPM spread outside Japan
during the 1980s and 1990s, a second generation of JPM emerged which more clearly
integrated these separate strands of management practice, and gave greater prominence
to kaizen (continuous improvement) in addition to introducing the concepts of the
Taguchi quality loss function and quality function deployment – both aiming to bring
quality to design. Undoubtedly the development of the original TPS was a logical and
considered response by Toyota to the market conditions at that time, namely demand for
high variety at comparatively low volumes; thus it was these exogenous factors which
spawned the developments in just-in-time production, single minute exchange of dies,
and the raft of so-called Japanese manufacturing techniques which were eventually to be
embodied in the lean manufacturing paradigm. Through its sheer scope, it is clear that
the lean system is complex and comprehensive, and the promise of competitive success
that it brings means that it has obvious appeal to practitioners.
For OM researchers, it provides a vast testing ground in which to explore their ideas.
Nowhere, for instance, is the debate as to the relative merits of the trade-off and cumulative
capabilities models of operations strategy (Boyer and Lewis, 2002; Flynn and Flynn, 2004)
more relevant, as academics work to determine whether, and how, to effect simultaneous
improvements across multiple dimensions. Schonberger (2007, p. 410) himself highlights
the difficulties that companies have in mounting and sustaining a lean effort, and
argues that “lean management may take in so many complementary concepts and
techniques that keeping them going in the right direction is like herding cats”.
IJOPM In this regard it is not surprising therefore that he concludes by questioning the
28,6 current and future state of JPM. Using inventory turnover as a surrogate for
“leanness”, his analysis of a multi-sector longitudinal study found patchy/uneven
results of the application of JPM in both Japanese and Western companies. He suggests
that lean management may only be skin deep in most companies who rely too heavily
on consultants to the detriment of depth of knowledge and employee involvement.
482 Moreover, he touches upon a second major strand of research in the automotive sector
which focuses on supply management, where he asserts that manufacturers are too
focused on near-at-hand, in-plant improvements while avoiding the tough issues
requiring inter-company collaborations.
Contemporary studies of automotive production systems have covered many issues
ranging from impacts on economies such as McDermott’s (1996) article on the
revitalisation of the UK automobile industry, to production system-specific research
such as Spear and Bowen’s (1999) analysis of the TPS. Increasingly, there is
recognition of the importance of relationships between buyers and suppliers. In fact, as
far back as 1996, Dyer (1996) was arguing for good relationships within tightly
integrated production networks incorporating proximity and human co-specialisation.
Such proximity is a key feature of modern supplier parks and these now occur widely
in the global automotive sector (Howard et al., 2006).
In this context, Fredriksson’s (2006) study of the Volvo Car Corporation’s assembly
plant in Torslanda (Sweden) provides interesting perspectives on the requirements for
successful modular assembly. All the module assembly units for this plant are located
in close proximity to Volvo’s final assembly line – either inside the plant area or
outside in a supplier park approx 15 minutes driving distance away. Within this set-up,
Fredriksson found that the efficiency of the modular assembly system is dependent on
the use of co-ordination mechanisms such as plans, standardisation and mutual
adjustment. Arguably a pre-requisite for successful implementation of these
mechanisms is the need for good, stable relationships between the automotive final
assemblers and the first tier module assembly units. Thus, it is interesting to note the
contrasting fortunes of the attempt by the Ford Motor Company to establish a supplier
park for an engine plant at Bridgend, UK (Howard et al., 2006). Modular sourcing is an
interesting development, and while it is one which actually synchronises with the TPS
goal of becoming lean, Schonberger comments on the irony that Japanese automakers
have been reluctant to adopt it.
Of course, as the automotive industry continues to globalise, we must recognise that
extant findings and models generated from studies in developed countries may not
obtain, at least to the same extent, elsewhere. This message is reinforced by Wasti et al.
(2006, p. 960) who present details of a comprehensive survey of buyer-supplier
relationships in the Turkish automotive industry, indicating that it is an industry
“marked by a melange of supplier management styles that co-exist and do not match
any given model directly”. Similarly, Zhang and Chen (2006) underscore the need to
understand the strategic challenges facing automotive manufacturers in China with
regard to making the transition from mass production to mass customisation.
In this issue, Oh and Rhee continue this theme by presenting the results of their
research into manufacturer-supplier collaboration in the Korean automotive industry.
A key element of their work is a survey of first tier suppliers to Hyundai-KIA Motors
Corporation which yields empirical findings on the types of collaboration arrangements
that exist and the supplier capabilities that impact upon these. Building on the existing OM research in
literature, and using four criteria based on the purpose of, nature of, timing of and parties the automotive
involved in the relationship, they argue for the use of five terms to describe increasingly
intense collaboration types, viz. collaborative communication, collaboration in new car sector
development, collaborative problem-solving, strategic purchasing and supplier
development. Oh and Rhee use their survey to determine the level of collaboration
achieved between Hyundai-Kia and its first tier suppliers and to investigate how this is 483
influenced by supplier capabilities in areas such as engineering, design, second tier
supplier collaboration, flexibility, cost reduction and quality improvement. Finally, they
examine the moderating effect of technology uncertainty on the influence of supplier
capabilities on collaboration type, defining this as the perceived unpredictability and
need for closer collaboration that result from rapid technological change in the sector.
Their complex research model has yielded interesting results that have value for
academics and practice.
Just as earlier we referred to the philosophical and theoretical debate surrounding
the trade-off and cumulative capabilities models of operations strategy, we can see here
a parallel contretemps regarding the implementation of Japanese manufacturing
techniques. Indeed, just as empirical research shattered earlier myths about the elusive
source of Japanese manufacturers’ competitive advantage, so today the success (and
sometimes failure) of “transplant” operations fuel further speculation. Thus, for
example, Lee and Jo (2007) studied the spread of the TPS through Korea, focussing on
the Hyundai Motor Company, where they use this case to argue against the wholesale
adoption of TPS and for the development of a customised lean production system.
They base their arguments on the premise that each company has its own unique
internal and external circumstances and that the development of a competitive
production system can best be achieved by an evolutionary process of organisational
learning and interpretation.
In this regard, Hyundai has a dominant home market position, which reduces the
need for flexibility of response to customer demands, and it has a relatively unreliable
domestic supply base. Both of these mitigate against adoption of the JIT/pull scheduling
approach. Furthermore, confrontational labour-management relations in the company
and mutual distrust between management and workers have restricted the extent to
which the employee involvement aspects of lean production are possible. Therefore,
whilst Hyundai began to emulate TPS in the mid-1970s, during the ensuing 30 years it
has developed its own Hyundai production system (HPS) that deviates in the significant
core areas of the “pull” system of production scheduling and the principle of employee
involvement. Thus, HPS incorporates a highly structured operations planning system
(with advanced planning and scheduling and ERP) that is more akin to a push approach;
and, departing from the employee-centric ideas of TPS, is technology-oriented and
engineering-driven – striving for maximisation of automation and minimisation of
In this same context, in a paper in this issue, Aoki presents fascinating insights into
the diffusion of Japanese kaizen-related management practices to automotive
manufacturers elsewhere in the world. Specifically, and in a departure from much
other work on the transfer of Japanese techniques which tends to focus on Western
implementations, they present findings from case studies of nine automotive parts
manufacturers in China. Of these, only some successfully transferred kaizen activities
IJOPM to the Chinese plants, whilst others did not. Aoki’s research used the concept of
28,6 communities of practice (COPs) as a theoretical framework to analyse learning in the
plants, and was thus able to investigate the differences in management practices
adopted by the case companies, in order to establish the factors which seemed to
influence the likelihood of successful transfer. He found that characteristics that were
common to successful cases included the active use of team-based rather than
484 individual based suggestions schemes; the adoption of human resource practices that
emphasise multi-skilling of employees and long-term employment; and a higher
frequency of shop floor visits by senior managers to check on work processes.
Aoki develops his theoretical perspective, quoting Liker’s (2004) depiction of kaizen
as a type of corporate culture that supports continuous organisational learning. Aoki
argues that such learning has the twin aims of learning from mistakes and of pursuing
innovation, thereby encapsulating dynamic capabilities that:
encourage workers’ self-initiative;
facilitate cross-functional communication; and
instil discipline into workers.

These pragmatic and accessible ideas provide food for thought for operations
managers attempting to make use of Japanese management techniques in Chinese
plants and also add to academic knowledge in this vast and important field of research.
So, while Lee and Jo noticed how the Korean environment resulted in a modified
version of the TPS, achieved by an evolutionary process of organisational learning,
Aoki asserts that management has a key role in providing the appropriate context for
people to learn Japanese kaizen activities, in effect creating the climate to enable
learning through practice. In sum he contends that the transfer of Japanese practices
cannot be achieved through formal procedures alone.
These papers highlight the complexities inherent in these superficially simple
concepts and tools, and they resonate with a quotation from Roos, one of the authors of
the Machine that Changed the World (Holweg, 2007, p. 427) who is cited as saying that
“lean was not just manufacturing, but in fact a holistic logic and management system
that starkly contrasted with the traditional mass production approach”. Indeed,
Holweg (2007, p. 430) reinforces the point by quoting Roos’ co-author Womack who
believed that TPS was the operations element of Toyota’s total management system
which was integrated with the processes for product development, supplier
management, customer management and the policy focussing process for the whole
enterprise: “the real power of the concept of lean production as we intended the term to
be used . . . was that all five elements were combined”.
Returning to the current themed issue, the third paper by Witcher, Chau and
Harding presents a study of Nissan which highlights this holistic approach, resonating
with the quotations above, and with Schonberger’s (2007) depiction of JPM as
an overarching strategic approach to management, as distinct from the Western
“silo system” mentality of functional separation. Nissan has achieved a major
turnaround in its strategic and operational effectiveness since the East Asian financial
crisis of the late-1990s; a success which Witcher et al. ascribe to its ability to manage
change effectively. In terms of resources, Nissan has adopted a policy management
approach called hoshin kanri which is a key high-order firm-wide dynamic capability,
within which second-order dynamic capabilities are nested. Witcher et al. believe that
this approach using complex sets of dynamic capability hierarchies has allowed Nissan OM research in
to achieve success and that this represents a means to realise sustainable competitive the automotive
advantage more generally.
Witcher et al. draw upon primary data from direct observation at Nissan sector
South Africa (NSA), supported by documentation provided by a NSA senior manager.
The data relates to a period of intensive organisational change and illustrates the use of
top executive audits within hoshin kanri, whereby top managers and executives audit 485
strategic goals at an operational level thus monitoring their implementation in practice.
They provide a mechanism whereby strategic management can better understand
operations. This paper provides an insightful account of Japanese management
practice which should be of great value to chief executives contemplating the adoption
of hoshin kanri, and also to academics in their pursuit of knowledge about the
differences between Japanese and Western management practices.
The high-order concept of hoshin kanri is similar to that of the top level
“management unit” described by Oliver, Holweg and Carver[1] in the context of Rover,
by which individual sub-systems are managed in complex organisations. However, the
management unit in Rover was unable to halt a terminal spiral of decline which
culminated in the company’s collapse in 2005. Oliver et al. use the lens of systems
theory to examine the case of the decline and eventual collapse of Rover – one of the
UK’s oldest and most traditional of car companies. From its earliest beginnings at
the start of the twentieth century, the company had a chequered organisational history
including mergers, acquisitions, takeovers, nationalisation, privatisation and
disintegration. Oliver et al. use primary data taken from interviews with senior
managers within Rover, government ministers and union officials between 1968 and
2005, supplemented by secondary data, to track the company’s fortunes from 1968
onwards. Access to such high-level sources has provided fascinating insights into the
strategic decisions that shaped the critical events in the company’s history.
Oliver et al. ascribe the eventual collapse of the company to production volumes
which were too low for viable operations. However, they argue that a series of factors
contributed to this point, including poor processes for product development, poor
manufacturing performance, industrial relations problems, high levels of product
variety and a lack of financial control. Overall, they conclude that the growing
mismatch between the industry dynamics and market conditions faced by the
company, and its operational capabilities, generated excessive load on a management
unit frequently operating under conditions of resource scarcity. By adopting a systems
perspective the authors have been able to analyse the corporate failure in a way that
has yielded insights they argue are unusual for OM and that would not be possible had
a more typical approach, based on the study of individual sub-systems, been used.

Some future research directions for the global automotive industry

In one sense, much of contemporary OM research in the automotive industry still
wrestles with the complexities of JPM approaches, whose richness of nuance and
complexity appear to be always just beyond our grasp. We have seen in the above
examples that sometimes the implementation succeeds and sometimes it does not.
The cause is even more difficult to establish; perhaps it is the mismatch between the
“system” and its environment, where, as in the case of Rover, the management
unit failed, or perhaps it is to do with the role and behaviours of top managers,
IJOPM where in Nissan, they engage in auditing strategic goals at an operational level. We can
28,6 be certain that the answer is not trivial and certainly not along the lines of the “top ten
obstacles to implementation”, or the “top ten critical success factors”. Of course, while
there always will be some who attempt, what is for many, an impossible goal, by
striving for a set of implementation rules (Black, 2007), the weight of evidence seems to
suggest the dominance of context. Concerted study has raised more questions than
486 answers – we still know relatively little about the true essence of the TPS “After 30
years, we can now be reasonably certain that whatever Toyota have got, it isn’t a
trivial task to bottle it and sell it on” (New, 2007, p. 3547).
As an industry, the automobile sector employs over 20 million workers directly and
indirectly worldwide and is “probably the most globalised industry in the world with
the three triad groups of the USA, Japan and Western Europe accounting for almost 90
per cent of total output” (Donnelly et al., 2002, p. 30). Thus, given the magnitude and
importance of the automotive industry to the global economy, it remains a major
international industry that demands our continued attention as OM researchers.
One message seems clear: we must be open to alternative research methods and new
theoretical perspectives in order to avoid the mistake of the “industrial tourists” who
embarked on study missions in the 1980s – they only saw what they expected to see.
Interestingly, Witcher et al. also allude to this in relation to the introduction of the
Nissan Way to the South African plant, whereby although Japanese ideas were
accepted, they were interpreted in conventional ways, e.g. waste elimination was
misconstrued as expenditure reduction.
In addition, perhaps we need to reaffirm our overarching research mission which is
to contribute to the improved practice of OM by conducting rigorous research in the
field. One theme which is common to several studies is that of evolutionary
organisational learning whereby:
the implementation of JPM or lean can adjust and adapt to its context;
mistakes can drive future improvement and innovation; and
strategy can connect more effectively with operations.
Aoki’s use of COPs provides a fruitful avenue for exploration of the transfer of these
intrinsically Japanese practices to overseas plants. This view is also reinforced by
Holweg who notes that the role of these Japanese transplant operations in knowledge
transfer has been underestimated since not only do they negate claims that JPM was
culturally bound, but they also provide more accessible laboratories for observation of
the practices and they contribute directly to the transfer of the same practices to the
local supply base.
Of course, the research agenda must recognise that not all innovation stems from
Japanese companies. Pil and Fujimoto (2007) remind us that other companies such as
Volvo have been at the forefront of development in production philosophy for many
years. Indeed, they observe that, while Toyota and Volvo have in the past been quoted as
exemplars at the poles on the spectrum of production choices, this is no longer the case,
citing convergence across many dimensions of work design, organisation structure and
technology. They make the crucial point however that whether this convergence will
continue or not is unclear and instead it may simply be a manifestation of evolution of
their respective systems which have happened to converge at a common but temporary
Returning to the Sugimori et al. article which fuelled many of the original studies, OM research in
the title of the article itself is rather intriguing, viz. “Toyota production system and the automotive
Kanban system: materialisation of just-in-time and respect-for-human system”.
Reference to the innovative Kanban system is understandable but the notion of the sector
respect-for-human system seems quaint to Western minds. Detailed perusal of the
article seems to confirm this view in terms of the straightforward, almost superficial,
treatment of the issue of respect for workers through elimination of waste movements, 487
concern for worker safety, and full utilisation of worker capabilities. Nonetheless,
adoption of Japanese manufacturing techniques continues to require careful attention
to human resource management issues (Jayaram et al., 1999) and remains an
under-researched area, apart perhaps from studies which provide evidence of
undesirably high levels of stress being associated with lean production (Brenner et al.,
2004; Bruno and Jordan, 2002), which in itself is still a contested assertion. As noted by
Conti et al. (2006), lean production is not necessarily stressful – it depends on
management choices in designing and operating the lean systems. Whether or not
these choices need also to extend to consideration of what Sugimori et al. cited as the
distinctive Japanese traits and customs remains to be determined, but on the face of it
customs such as lack of discrimination between shop-floor and white collar workers,
and opportunities available to workers for promotion to managerial positions seem to
have a level of face validity.
This review could continue for much longer. Based on the importance of the sector it
is incumbent on us as OM researchers to continue our investigations within it.
By experimenting with novel approaches – both methodological and pedagogical – we
may derive original insights which will be of benefit to practice, improve our
knowledge and extend our understanding. We can see from this discourse that there is
increased use of alternative theoretical lenses such as systems theory and COPs,
something that has been widely advocated. So long as their usage is driven by a sincere
desire to uncover novel insights this is a good thing. Experimentation brings with it
notions of success and failure, but as espoused by the spirit of kaizen itself, we can
often learn more from our failures than from our successes. Unless we are willing to
take risks we may miss opportunities for furthering our field.

1. We are grateful to Professor Douglas MacBeth for encouraging the authors to develop this
paper for IJOPM; the paper was originally presented at the 13th Annual European
Operations Management Conference in Glasgow, June 2006.

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Corresponding author
Margaret Taylor can be contacted at: m.taylor4@bradford.ac.uk

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