Life Lessons from Toyota

Chazen Japan visits ToyotaAfter an amazing day in Kyoto we left the city to head to Nagoya and Toyota City to visit their manufacturing plants.  Now as I mentioned before, I am super psyched to see Toyota after a semester of listening to Professor Joe Hall about the wonders of this firm.  And let me tell ya…Toyota did not disappoint.

To get to Toyota from Kyoto we took the Shinkansen (bullet train).  Now I don’t know if you know how fast one of these trains can go, but it was literally shocking.  The bullet train can reach over 200 mph, and they just fly past you at a whistle and blurr.  I kid you not when I tell you that you had a platform full of 41 New Yorkers, who all frequently ride the subway, went into stunned silence when a bullet train entered the station and we heard the sound.  After it blew past it took us a moment to recover and then an eruption of talk as we couldn’t believe what we just saw.  This train is wicked fast, roomy, and exceptionally clean.  In other words, I wouldn’t mind riding one of these from the Upper West Side down to the Financial District if I had to #justsayin.

The tour of Toyota started with an interesting story about a loom.  The story goes that a Sakichi Toyoda wanted to contribute to society and at the same time earn a living.  I can respect that.  So he thought that a good way to do so would be to invent something useful.  At the time the Nagoya area had been known for textiles and Sakichi’s mother owned a loom that was hand-operated.  Her machine required her to both push and pull levers with her hands in order to get the loom to go back and forth.  Sakichi had the idea to add a push lever for the foot to help make this movement easier.  Apparently the invention worked and it became a success.  Sakichi went on to create over 100 inventions and became the “King of Japanese Inventors”.  As it so happens, each invention was for the loom.  Welcome to the concept of Kaizen.

Kaizen is the practice of continuous improvement, and it is one of the pillars of Toyota Motors.

After being exposed to Kaizen in his father’s loom business, Kiichiro Toyoda applied this principle to cars and opened the Toyota Motor Corporation in the 1930s.  Today Toyota has over $350,000 employees worldwide sells over 7 million new cars each year.  While the Toyota brand has clearly gained name recognition for the cars they sell, it is the operations of Toyota that blow me away.

In addition to Kaizen, the second pillar of Toyota is Jidoka.  This is the balance between man and machine.  The goal of Jidoka is to make sure that problems are taken care of in real time to ensure that they do not cause bigger problems later on down the production line.  One of the key outputs of this philosophy is the Andon cord.  An employee of Toyota pulls this cord any time there is a problem to signal that they need help.  A supervisor will come to the station that issued the call, and if they cannot fix the issue within a certain period of time, the entire production line stops.  By fixing problems in this way Toyota has been able to identify trends in errors, and greatly reduce the amount of re-work they have to do on their vehicles, especially when compared to other car manufacturers.  While machines are clearly instrumental in the Toyota plant, I thought it was interesting that management was clear that you can just point out a problem and say lets add a robot or automation to fix it.  They strive for balance between man and machine to achieve maximum output and quality.

You can see how Kaizen and Jidoka work hand in hand together.  Toyota has successfully created a culture in which their employees want to ensure efficiency and the best possible product possible.  It is this focus that allows Toyota to employ Just-in-Time inventory.  What I mean by Just-in-Time is that Toyota doesn’t house rows and rows of headlights sitting around.  Instead they can order inventory from their suppliers and have it delivered within hours to their plant.  The result is that they order as needed, greatly reducing the cost of unsold/unusable inventory.  Just-in-Time isn’t a crazy concept, it is just that Toyota does it really really well.

But maybe you already knew all this about Toyota.  Perhaps you read an article about Kaizen or Jidoka and you aren’t surprised by Toyota’s business.  I get it.  These are things I already knew about.  So why was I so excited to see the Toyota plant?

I was excited because I found the plant surprising.  The plant itself is remarkably quiet.  And I mean quiet.  Everything is exceptionally clean with a defined space and process for all parts in the production process.  There is a boat-load of automation with unmanned “cars” moving around the shop transporting various pieces of equipment.  The assembly line handles multiple models at once in any given order.  You might see a red sedan followed by a silver SUV, and all of the parts are delivered to the different stations in the exact order that they will be worked on.  We couldn’t take pictures in the plant, and perhaps it is hard to imagine, but it was truly a lesson in logistics.

So what’s the take away?  Look for balance between men and machines.  Practice Kaizen and aim to continuously improve.  I think it is this mindfulness of the process that allows Toyota to excel in the many areas that they do.  These are principals we could apply to both our business and our personal lives.

Lacy Pierce ’14

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