'The Toyota Way' gets perpetuated overseas
By Yuri Kageyama
By Yuri Kageyama
TOYOTA, Japan — At a center for teaching Toyota production methods, workers from around the world learn bolt-tightening by moving dance-like to a metronome. To practice paint jobs, they study videos of their performance.
"It comes from experience. The body knows how to learn," says Kazuo Hyodo, a 30-year veteran on the assembly line, as he demonstrates how to stand, finger the bolts and listen to the buzz of the drill for proper bolt-tightening, Toyota-style. "Hear that? That sounds metallic, and you're screwing it in too tight."
At a time when Toyota Motor Corp. appears on track to overtake General Motors Corp. as the world's biggest automaker, it's increasingly critical to correctly spread production methods that earned a global reputation for reliability and efficiency.
While the troubles of U.S. automakers have drawn much of the media attention, Toyota has been quietly doing its job right.
Toyota has increased U.S. vehicle sales by 10 percent last year from 2004, to clinch about 13 percent U.S. vehicle market share, up from 12 percent in 2004, leading a steady gain by Asian companies. U.S. market share for GM has been dwindling, dipping to 26 percent last year from 27 percent in 2004.
But for the first time, the Japanese automaker is passing on to overseas workers the knowledge that had been passed on silently on the job from generation to generation.
The plant-turned-school where Hyodo works opened in 2003 to maintain quality during a global expansion begun in the 1990s. Similar training centers opened in February in Georgetown, Ky.; in Burnaston, Great Britain, last month; and in Thailand in August 2005. Instructors for overseas centers are trained at the Japan facility.
All automakers have training programs, but they generally aren't as systematic and pervasive as Toyota's. The steps in production are broken down so that the slowest learner will be able to build Toyota cars — with a little practice.
Sessions lasting up to two months use videos, mock assembly lines, exercises and lectures to teach workers from Toyota plants and suppliers around the world. Trainees gather, like martial artists seeking a master, to become versed in "the Toyota Way."
Krishna Srinivasan, 32, who works for a Toyota supplier in India, says he has great respect for the Toyota teachers. If you do things right, you avoid not only quality shortcomings but also accidents, he said.
"It's a method of working correctly," he said. "We're very proud to be an Indian Toyota man."
Although the teaching tools are mostly visual and hands-on, designed to skirt language barriers, the key to producing quality cars is to absorb the proper movements through your body with repeated practice, much like a dance lesson, Toyota officials say.
Students practice paint jobs by spraying water in front of a one-way mirror, where a video camera on the other side detects erroneous movements. Cups are placed at the bottom, and the water that fills up in each of the cups must be even to prove the apprentice has carried out his moves accurately.
Witnessing the training offers insight into the roots of Toyota's success as well as the challenges it faces as it grapples with translating its ways to foreign languages and cultures.
In the 1950s, when Toyota first began exporting cars to North America, it was still playing catch-up with GM.
These days, their fates couldn't be more different.
Toyota raked in $10 billion in profit for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2005, and is on its way to another booming year when it reports earnings in a few weeks. GM lost $10.6 billion last year.
Toyota plans to produce 9.06 million vehicles this year after making 8.25 million vehicles last year. GM, which does not give full-year production targets, made 9.05 million vehicles in 2005.
Toyota has 52 production facilities in 27 nations and is rapidly growing, with a new plant in San Antonio that starts running this year, and others in the works in Canada, Russia, Thailand and China. GM, which has 122 production facilities in 28 nations, is closing plants.
Shinji Kitayama, auto analyst with Shinko Securities Co., said it's important for Toyota to standardize production methods around the world to maintain the same kind of quality. "A lot of companies want to imitate Toyota but can't because they don't have the same kind of workers," he said.
A separate program for grooming management was set up in Japan in 2002, and six of the company's top executives are non-Japanese, although none of them sit on the board.
Toyota also teaches management it must provide an environment where every worker can learn, contribute and be proud of being part of Toyota.
"At Toyota, we have a culture that values our workers and nurtures them," said Yuichi Shibui, senior general manager at the Global Production Center.
Toyota's principles are reflected in the production methods that it made famous— such as "kaizen," or "continuous pursuit of improvement," which means workers on the ground are empowered to figure out better ways of making cars and fixing problems on the line.