Toyota NUMMI: Optimism at the dawn of a new era?

Last month, I visited a Toyota plant for the first time, the fabled NUMMI plant in Fremont, California.  The factory has fallen on harder times:  production stopped on some lines in December.  
It has come a long, long way since the late 1980’s, after James Womack and his MIT colleagues published the classic, “Machine that Changed the World,” book on Lean Manufacturing.  Groups from companies, universities and think tanks all over the world used to line up to tour the facility.  

Ours, we were told, would be one of the last tours given. 
“I guess I’m muda (waste),” joked our tour guide, Sara, who peppered her speech with Toyota-isms, casually throwing around terms like kanban, gemba, kaizen (as she explained, one receives concrete remuneration for kaizen ideas that get adopted), or genchi genbachu (go and see).  Sara was “high energy,” funny and so enthusiastic about her job, about the facility and the company that I couldn’t understand how she could move from this post to quietly assembling engine housings or panels.  

Sara was OK with the change. 

My inner cynic assured me that all this “Gung Ho” enthusiasm (immortalized in the film by that name ) had to be put on.

I keenly searched everywhere for a grump.

I didn’t find one.  

Sara’s enthusiasm was duplicated by everyone I saw on the plant floor. OK, I only saw about 200 of the facility’s thousands of employees, but all the folks I saw were smiling---not the smiles that start at the mouth and lock into grimaces but real smiles, the kind that come from within. 

  Most of them waved to our group in its little trolley. There was no “Oh, geez.  Glad we won’t see too many more of them.”  

It was not the easiest workplace to be in.  I don’t think I would last a day there.  If I made it past the recruiters…they scan the high school records looking for students with near perfect attendance records and no tardies (my Achilles heel).  And this group just makes the first cut.

The plant was extremely noisy, dominated by the sound of clanging metal and dueling synthesizer tunes---electronic Fur Elise vs. Mary Had a Little Lamb vs. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  Similar to the racket you’d hear at a nursery where 12 children are brandishing different electronic toys. (Of your many gifts, did you have to give us music synthesizers, Japan?)  

The tunes are only annoying to the visitor.  Employees wear ear plugs and deal with it. In fact, the cacaphony is a reassuring sign that Jidoka is at work.  The tunes play whenever a worker pulls the Andon cord, signaling that something is wrong on the line, stopping production briefly so the problem can be solved before the product is made and it’s too late.  Tunes play locally, and supervisors are quick to move whenever one plays….plus there is a backup system.

There was also a Kaizen center on the floor, and, regardless of the economic downturn, improvements appeared to be steadily streaming in.  Some suggested changes were posted on bulletin boards that were clearly an organic part of the facility, not Potemkin villages that could be taken down or replaced a year later.  

Most tellingly, despite the downturn, not one job at the facility has been lost.  As Sara explains, NUMMI has a strict “no layoff” policy.   So there’s no overtime and everyone cuts back on hours during down times, but they remain employed and retain excellent benefits, including fully paid medical, dental and vision coverage.

Some of the tiny details were extremely revealing.  One escalator, for instance, needed repair. A nearby sign read something to the effect that “It will cost over $120,000 to fix this escalator, and we feel the money can be better spent.  Thank you for understanding.”  

How many companies (in industries of all kinds) have I known where fixing that escalator would have been a priority.

Nobody has to be reminded of the painful restructuring now going on in this, and so many other industries today.  This is not to suggest that layoffs cannot and should never occur, but there is something to be said for a culture that respects employees and cultivates their loyalty. That is, perhaps, the most remarkable thing about Toyota, and I genuinely hope it survives the downturn.  

Its legacy is not only enthusiastic workers but sustainable initiatives----Lean and Six Sigma projects that withstand the test of time.  Kaizen projects that continue at facilities, not what Tefen partner Sal Santangelo refers to as “Drive By” Kaizen events, which have their moment in the sun, then die. Like those Potemkin Village boards.

There have been too many ephemeral pharma Lean projects, or projects that seem to advance a true Lean agenda, but merely become euphemisms for cutbacks.  

After meeting Sara, I had a nightmare of a time in the future, when people indoctrinated in this Lean psychology no longer had an outlet for their spirit and enthusiasm, except to attend Star Trek-like conventions where they could spout the Japanese phrases that their companies had so quickly abandoned. 

Here’s hoping that day never comes, and that your workplaces and your careers, wherever they take you, embrace the optimism of Kaizen. Now, more than ever, it’s a word to live by.

AMS