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Paul Naysmith

Six Sigma

My Toyota Dilemma, Part Three

The journey toward lean is never-ending

Published: Wednesday, September 12, 2012 - 10:47

I’m back, writing about another Toyota dilemma of mine. In part one, interestingly titled “My Toyota Dilemma,” I wrote how I, as an avid fan and supporter of the Toyota Production System (TPS) have never owned a Toyota. I ended that column vowing I would use Toyota’s greatest gift—the 5 Whys—to help find my next car.

In the highly imaginatively titled “My Toyota Dilemma, Part 2,” I went on to explain how I bought a Toyota after moving to the United States (thus solving my first dilemma), and the fascinating things you learn when you pull the dash apart and replace it, although you have the mechanical skills of a newborn water vole. Part two ended with a new dilemma, about how I could attend a Toyota plant tour. This is the story of that Toyota visit, and it ends with—you guessed it—me walking away with another “Toyota dilemma.”

On a Thursday evening once a month, the Baton Rouge section of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) holds a meeting that I very much like to attend. Although not a member of the ASQ, I’m always welcomed, and I value the meetings when I’m able to make one. I’m a great believer in networking, and if you have never attended this professional institute’s meetings, please do so. Perhaps you, like me, will become more than a spectator and get involved as a volunteer.

During one of the earlier sessions I attended, a gentleman by the name of Gary Lane, a lean consultant, provided a detailed PowerPoint presentation of lean’s tools and techniques. “Lean companies will always welcome visitors, to let you see how well they do,” he noted, and, “Take the opportunity to visit a lean company.” He’s right: Any company proud of its systems would want to show them off with much pride.

I live in southern Louisiana, not traditionally known for its manufacturing base, and neither does it support any large-scale, lean automotive bases. In the United States, Ford, Chrysler, General Motors, and Chevrolet are headquartered in the north, which is perhaps a bit too far (and expensive) to take a team for a factory visit to learn about quality principles. Granted, I have been to the Tabasco sauce factory 20 miles from my home, which is without a doubt world-class, but world-class manufacturing principles as seen in a completely alien industry might be a little challenging for some to grasp. Watching a little bottle of red sauce spinning past a colleague and explaining about FIFO is all well and fine, but because it’s not a piece of equipment the size of a house, or one a team sees every day, it can be difficult to apply the principle in one’s home industry, so to speak.

After the ASQ presentation, I spoke with Gary about this and mentioned my desire to visit a lean automotive factory. At that point a warm smile spread across his cheerful face. “Toyota has a mega-factory in San Antonio,” he said.

I have been to San Antonio before, about four years ago. My wife and I vacationed on a ranch not far from the city, and we day-tripped the Alamo. However, I wasn’t aware of the Toyota factory, or that you could visit it. I remember the ranch vacation was pleasurable, but I think it would have been enhanced by a trip to Toyota. My wife would have probably thought otherwise. So from the comfort of my man cave, I did my research and learned that Toyota did offer scheduled tours at its Texas plant. It even has a visitor center there. I think I did let out a squeal of excitement when I learned about this.

The day after my many hours of planning a Toyota tour, I had a bathtub full of reasons why I had to take a group from the office to the plant. I needed these many reasons to persuade my boss that he should approve the idea and budget it. So I headed to the office and cornered him:

“Scott, I would like to talk over a proposal for a learning opportunity for a group from the base. This would involve going to see Toyota’s world-class manufacturing in San Antonio—”

“Good idea, Paul,” he said. “We’ll start making arrangements.”

I wish all my business proposals were accepted that quickly. To be honest, I was lucky: There was a recruitment fair in the San Antonio area that my company was attending at the time, which was already budgeted for.

So on a glorious Monday afternoon, seven of us left Louisiana to go to San Antonio. The plan was to attend the job fair on Tuesday and Toyota on Wednesday morning, returning home the same day. The fair was good; we found some very high-potential candidates, and in the afternoon I took the opportunity with one of the operations managers to visit the Alamo and buy Mexican wrestler masks from the market. The unnamed operations manager claims he bought the mask for his son, but we both know it was an adult-sized mask. However, I do understand the unwritten wrestler’s code and will never reveal your identity, El Salsa.

I couldn’t wait until Wednesday. I have been to automotive factories before, but the thought of seeing trucks being assembled made me even more hyperactive than normal. After checking out of the hotel, I was so adrenalized I forgot that half of the team was in the car behind, following my lead, and I left them in the dust somewhere in downtown San Antonio.

On the southern periphery of San Antonio, the Toyota factory is so immense it took us 10 minutes to drive from one gate to the next and arrive at the visitor center. This is where the lesson in TPS began. As a student of TPS, and having worked for a world-class company where many of the TPS principles were applied, there is perhaps little I don’t know, or I should say, little I wouldn’t recognize about lean techniques in action.

As we travelled through the center, there were improvement terms, such as kaizen, with their definitions in 2-ft-high letters on the walls. There were stations to practice your assembly skills, shadow board principles, a 6-ft display case of awards, and even a station to pull the andon cord to stop the process. Apparently there were cars and trucks to look at as well, but I missed these small details once my Improvement Ninja senses caught the scent of excellence.

Being the excitable child that I am, I even stopped and interviewed the very helpful staff. I learned that all the employees at the visitor center came from the manufacturing side. They had to interview for the position, and it was treated as an honorable placement in another Toyota department. Even better, they all loved their jobs at Toyota, not to mention the incredible benefit packages they get for working there.

From the visitor center, we drove in convoy to the factory, where we would see the assembly process. After we donned our safety equipment and headsets, we set off in the back of a golf cart. Within the site we snaked through all the different production areas. I easily identified key lean principles, a secret, hidden-from-view kaizen area, clear visual management, and andon cords being pulled everywhere.

We were returned to where we started, and we departed for the long drive home. Although I had known what to look for and recognized many practices, as we headed back to Louisiana I learned some valuable lessons about the experience from our team. The car was full of conversations: “Did you see this?”, “How could we apply that?” and, “How do you think they got the point of doing that?” Great debates ensued on what we could adopt and strive for; however, I said very little. I just sat back and loved every moment.

I learned that for some in the team who had never been exposed to world-class manufacturing, the tour was an eye-opener. A revolution in thinking akin to taking someone from the Middle Ages to the space station and proving the Earth is, in fact, round. Some had difficulty taking it all in, or even recognizing the basic tools or process of getting to lean. I learned that one tour is not enough because there is so much sensory overload that it is overwhelming.

So I have been presented with my new Toyota dilemma. Oh yes, I will have to extend this series of articles, dear reader. As with any journey toward world-class or lean, it is never-ending, but we must always stride toward it. My dilemma now is based on my observations from this trip. How do I design the next visit where my team can get more from the tour? I’m heading off to my man cave now to start applying scientific principles to factory touring.


The Expro team together in the Toyota Texas visitor center.

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About The Author

Paul Naysmith’s picture

Paul Naysmith

Paul Naysmith is the author of Business Management Tips From an Improvement Ninja and Business Management Tips From a Quality Punk. He’s also a Fellow and Chartered Quality Professional with the UK’s Chartered Quality Institute (CQI), and an honorary member of the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). Connect with him at www.paulnaysmith.com, or follow him on twitter @PNaysmith.

Those who have read Paul’s columns might be wondering why they haven’t heard from him in a while. After his stint working in the United States, he moved back to his homeland of Scotland, where he quickly found a new career in the medical-device industry; became a dad to his first child, Florence; and decided to restore a classic car back to its roadworthy glory. With the help of his current employer, he’s also started the first-of-its-kind quality apprenticeship scheme, which he hopes will become a pipeline for future improvement ninjas and quality punks.