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Q. You have been involved with the Toyota organization for a number of years and hold several certifications related to the Toyota Production System that you earned while working in Japan. Will you please explain the Toyota Production System?

The Toyota Production System (TPS) evolved from Sakichi Toyoda from the Textile era, along with his son Kiichiro Toyoda, to create a framework for people to have common language for effective business practices around just-in-time thinking, jidoka (build in quality), standardization, continuous improvement and respect for people in a macro viewpoint (there are many infrastructural nuances that support TPS). Over the years, TPS evolved from the Gen 1 version to Gen 2 – the Thinking Production System, meaning the deeper thinking of this system can be translated external to Toyota – and lastly Gen 3 TPS, which is the Thinking People System, meaning it can translate to any genre of industry centered around the 4Ps: People, Process, Purpose and Problem-Solving.

Q. In organizations in the United States and other Western countries, maintenance departments are being held responsible for equipment reliability and unexpected breakdowns; however, when breakdown causes are investigated, very few relate to maintenance. How do organizations like Toyota deal with cross-functional issues and problem-solving?

During my time at Toyota working in the plastics department, I worked along with maintenance and tool and die departments to understand their expectations of me in regard to the equipment as the supervisor in the area, as well as machine and process capabilities of my equipment. If those standards weren’t developed, known and trained to, they can create the discrepancies that we tend to react to. Our trainers would say, “don’t blame a person for a badly designed process,” so we would have cross-functional quality circles or training sessions to ensure great standards were in place for preventive maintenance (PM) that were team member related and those that were maintenance related and visualize that at the process.

Q.Uptime and focus on reliability. Reliability has a technical side and a people side. The technical side focuses on understanding the nature and causes of failure so they can design the failure out or create tasks to eliminate or avoid suffering from them. How does this relate to the type of continuous improvement and problem-solving in the Toyota Production System?

We used a term internally called primary process owner (PPO), which involved the people and technical side of each process we had. We looked at it as understanding the “process diagnostics” side of things and change point management. Toyota is a standard-driven company and won’t operate the process without someone with accountability to follow it. The standard is designed to incorporate “problem awareness” through our Andon pull system for the team member and team leader to see abnormality at a glance and stop the line, if necessary. This sets up for effective and efficient problem-solving (PDCA method) to find any opportunities for continuous improvement. We try to equip the team members (PPO model) with all the knowledge of the process from a maintenance, productivity, quality and cost perspective so they can make certain decisions based on their essential job function without always relying on the team leader. For Toyota’s success and others, it results from E3, meaning Everybody, Everyday Engaged in correctly framing problems.

Q. Does the Toyota Production System take culture into account? Do companies in Japan have an advantage because of the natural cultural instinct to collaborate, comply and be part of the whole? In the United States and other Western cultures, individual innovation and performance are emphasized and rewarded. How did you make the Toyota Production System work in the U.S. plants?

Not all Japanese companies embedded specific TPS thinking in their organizations; it was very specific to Toyota plants, although many have tried to replicate it. I think the culture in Japan, in general, is a bit different, but I feel overall there are commonalities—they do tend to invest time in predictive problem-solving versus reactive. At Toyota North America, I was introduced to the Quality Circle Program and Suggestion System. The Quality Circle Program was created to allow team members to have an avenue to problem solve within their team, working on specific scoped issues in their area and giving them a platform for self/team development supported by their supervisor, with assistance from maintenance and tool and die to help with the idea. It’s a part of team member and team leader development for their succession planning and to lead and learn together as an organization heading toward the same true north.

Q. How does the Toyota Production System ensure that the best solutions are advanced? So many times, decisions come down to the personal preference of the middle manager, who may not have the knowledge or breadth of perspective to make the most informed choice. Is there a system that encourages an open mind, wider questioning, or other method of discovery?

Toyota resides in Toyota Business Practices (TBP), eight steps to problem-solving thinking. This thinking drives more fact-/gemba-based thinking versus tribal knowledge, assumptions, or even opinions at times when results are important to attain. It encourages framing the problem correctly on the left side of the A3 in order to ensure the proper countermeasures are implemented to get past the symptom. We also think tribal knowledge is great, but must be shared (wisdom) in order to develop best practices and standards, which are learned at the gemba at all levels.

Q. What is a sensei?

This wasn’t a term I personally used to describe my Japanese trainers, but to most, it was what they were. Today, I prefer the term “influencer,” because you don’t have to be a leader or trainer to influence people by your actions each day. The role of an influencer or sensei is to lead and learn with people through gemba interactions and asking questions with process owners to help team members manage problems versus problems managing them and differentiating leading and lagging KPI tracking. For example, How is it going and how can I help remove the barriers and constraints to improve the work with you (not for you), and how do we know (measurability)?

Q. Lean is often taken to mean that management is reducing headcount and cutting costs. Why did it get that reputation? How can lean be applied to equipment reliability?

Lean in some companies, unfortunately, has morphed or has been misused over the years to create a negative perception that’s not about developing people, but rather reducing headcount, but in all reality, the intent is quite the opposite. If folks weren’t exposed to the creation of how lean was coined, it can lend itself to the “reduction of people” mentality versus reducing “process waste” to add value in their daily work and for the customer. Lean thinking was used at Toyota in many ways to level load equipment time for model change trials, cross-training and ergonomic studies. Working with maintenance and understanding capacity and capability were a must for accuracy, fit and people development during changeovers to maintain KPIs.

Q. What role does leadership play in creating a successful culture of engagement and continuous improvement (the act of leadership, not leadership from the plant manager)?

When I was promoted into my leadership role at Toyota, my Japanese trainer asked me if I understood the expectation of my role as a servant leader. I replied “yes” and he said, “Do you realize 50 percent of your time is to develop people?” I have to admit, that was going to be challenging. His intention was to ensure I would be spending time at the gemba present with their team, supporting standardized work creation and auditing (SDCA), problem-solving, A3, visual management, 5S and quality circle theme work for their area. It is a leader’s role to develop people beyond what they thought they were capable of. Leaders need to understand learning styles and preferences to be able to nudge their team members past their comfort zone in order to learn and share wisdom.

Q. How do you develop leaders on the floor?

Leaders must understand the servant leadership model in order to say and bring to life the “I work for you” model. A leader must give their team members the proper space to think versus firefighting or reacting. In order to do that, leaders must have the discipline and accountability to practice effective lean thinking, even then, the drive to get the results is strong. The difference between a good versus extraordinary company practicing lean and evolving its culture is the ability to say, “We are a company that develops people first that just happens to produce (X).” People must be the focus and leaders need to make those actions tangible on a daily basis. The Toyota Way 2001 was founded on respect for people and continuous improvement, so leaders leading and learning simultaneously should be an expectation of their role to ensure long-term sustainability and growth for any company.

Q. What advice do you have for those who want to get started on a similar career journey as yours?

I’m 32 years into my learning journey inside and outside of Toyota. I’ve always tried to be a sponge, soaking in all I can from the folks I’m blessed to work with, as well as my leaders and trainers who never stopped pushing me past my comfort zone. My trainers would say, “The moment you stop learning, your value begins to go down,” so I try to stay true to learning and finding new ways to explain lean in our everyday lives to help folks learn much faster than I did. Sharing wisdom with the next generation is our responsibility, so the paradigm of tribal knowledge isn’t a hindrance, but rather constantly renewing the norm through our collective ideas to meet the ever-changing market demands. So, never stop learning from others and, as Mr. Cho says, “Go See, Ask Why and Show Respect.”

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