Sunday, April 13, 2008

Toyota Tour, opus 5

Last Friday, eight engineers from our group of companies and I had the chance to tour Toyota’s North American Fork Truck manufacturing facility, Toyota Industrial Equipment Mfg (TIEM). I continue to be astounded and grateful for the openness, transparency and astounding skills of Toyota.

This was my fifth walk through this plant. My first trip was in August 2000 and I was there most recently in October 2005. I wanted to use this visit to grasp more of the “how” of the Toyota Production System.

My colleagues were making their first visit to a Toyota facility. Not surprisingly, they were blown away by the cleanliness, systemization and flow of the place. The innumerable small tools, carts, jigs, jib cranes, rollers were astounding, as was the ergonomics, the attention to detail, the visual communication and sheer energy of the place.

And this plant let us get up close and personal to the energy. Unlike Toyota’s large car plants, this facility employs only about 650 people, making about 130 fork trucks per day on four final assembly lines. Thus, we could easily walk the entire plant in a little over an hour, with time to stop and observe items of interest. There was no catwalk tour or trolley train…we were on our feet, very much in gemba.

Two events while there capture my observations.

When we arrived and were greeted by our host, she led us to a table holding our name tags. She then requested we make sure our names were spelled correctly. One of my colleagues with a complex last name chuckled softly to herself observing two transposed letters; it was not a problem to her. Our host was listening carefully, however, to the response to her question. Immediately, she asked what the correction was and, over my colleague’s mild objection, took the name tag to correct it. Her assistant disappeared into an office, caught up with our group about 3 minutes later and personally delivered the now-correct name tag.

What happened ? It was a line stop. There was an error and, at Toyota, you simply do not allow a known error to proceed. Ever. In this case the error detection method was inspection by a qualified person; each one of us checked our own name. More specifically, this was a pull on a yellow cord (signaling an error but not stopping the process) rather than a pull on the red cord (signaling a complete stoppage of the process). Our tour continued to the next stop yet they corrected the error. My colleague was wowed; I commented to her it was impossible for them to NOT fix the mistake. This is consistent with foundational principles of the TPS; rapid error detection and correction (jidoka) and respect for people.

Late in our walk around, our host invited us to look at an area of the plant displaying extensive manufacturing data. As our tour group of 9 looked, I noticed the area rapidly filling up with Toyota staffers. Our host introduced me to one of them, the plant's Director of Quality. He quickly explained: “This is our 2:35 meeting. We gather daily to discuss quality problems in the past 24 hours.” Conveniently, it was 2:35pm…I stuck around to hear what went on.

Attending were the Plant Manger, the senior managers of functional areas and a number of Team Leaders. With no fanfare and all attendees simply standing up in the metrics area, the meeting promptly started with a discussion of an error discovered late in the day Thursday. The Team Leader of the area briefly described the problem (a missing latch). He then introduced an associate from the line who gave detaila on what went wrong and how he missed installing the latch. The Team Leader then resumed the brief presentation, describing the countermeasure their group had already installed to prevent this from happening again. The whole discussion of this single problem took perhaps three minutes. The senior managers of the plant heard directly from an hourly employee what happened and how his group planned to fix it.

Describing this in text loses the impact of the moment, though. I observed the body language, the tone and the mood of the meeting. It was these factors which astounded me. The group was attentive and welcoming to the associate and Team Leader. Their walk matched their talk of wanting to know about problems. There was no hint of blame or punishment. The obvious expectation was the work group itself could fix problems and their fix would eliminate errors. Further, was the expectation the group could act promptly. I could feel it…and it was mind-boggling to see the culture this plant had built through thousands of repetitions of such discussions.

At 2:45, the meeting ended and the group which had assembled so promptly dispersed just as quickly…again, the context of speed and action rang true.

Two brief vignettes illustrate what must happen hundreds of times each day at this small plant in a quiet corner of Indiana. It was a moving and challenging day. My nature is to mull this for some time…yet I’m also challenged to make something happen soon.

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Walk the Talk

At a recent community business luncheon, a local executive told us about their training program, showing video of manufacturing simulations, showing the number of hours they give each new employee, describing the industry attention the program had attracted.

That afternoon, our firm interviewed a candidate for an open manufacturing position. On his application, the candidate indicated he had worked at the firm with the exemplary training program. Having just heard about it, I asked him to describe his training.

“What training?” he asked. “I was pretty much just put on the line, watching another guy and trying to figure it out.”

We explored this further; he had received no training at all.

Do we walk the talk?

My oldest son is currently “out-processing” from the US Army, having completed two deployments to Iraq. I phoned him this week on his base and heard a lot of voices in the background. “Yeah, I’m just waiting in line for a medical review,” he told me laconically. “I’ve been in line about three hours. I brought a book.” We chuckled about this and talked of his final days in the Army.

“Oh, Dad, I saw something you’d like here,” he told me as I started to let him go. “On a bulletin board here in this hallway is a poster about a Lean Six Sigma project. I figured you were the only person who might even understand it.” I asked him if it had anything to do with shortening the medical wait time. He laughed, saying it looked just like a poster.

Do we walk the talk?

I had a business lunch on Thursday at a local restaurant. The businessman next to me requested a “sweet potato,” placing his order perhaps absent-mindedly in the middle of an engaging conversation. The server delivered the sweet potato with the rest of the food.

“I didn’t ask for a sweet potato, I wanted a baked potato,” he told the server, though he offered to eat the sweet potato. Before anyone could say anything, the server apologized, said he’d go get a baked potato and, whoosh, away went the sweet potato. About two minutes later, a baked potato appeared. By my ears, the server heard right the first time; yet he didn’t argue and served the customer quickly and courteously.

Do we walk the talk?

When our talk goes one way and our walk goes the other, we become a headless oddity. When our talk moves with our walk, credibility rises.

The waiter had it, in spades.

I wonder how others view me.

I’ll try to keep my head.