Visiting Toyota

Feb. 26, 2009
The automaker is now entering a mature, more challenging phase of its history, yet has managed to keep its core principles intact. Are there lessons here for pharma?

Last month, I visited a Toyota plant for the first time, the fabled NUMMI plant in Fremont, Calif. The factory has fallen on relatively hard times: production stopped on some lines in December.

This is a far cry from the late 1980’s, after James Womack and his MIT colleagues published the Lean Manufacturing classic, “The Machine that Changed the World.” Production always ran full, and groups from private industry, 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, a petite, middle-aged woman named Sarah, 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 genbutsu (go and see). Sarah was “high energy,” funny and so enthusiastic about her job, about the facility and the company.

My inner cynic assured me that all this “Gung Ho” enthusiasm (immortalized in a film by that name) had to be put on. Sarah’s enthusiasm was duplicated by everyone I saw on the plant floor. Most of them waved to our group in its little trolley. There was no “Oh, geez. Not another bunch of gawkers!”

It was not the easiest workplace to be in. The plant is very noisy, dominated by the sound of clanging metal and random, dueling synthesizer tunes — Für Elise vs. Mary Had a Little Lamb vs. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Kind of like the racket you’d hear at a nursery where each kid is brandishing a different electronic toy.

But the tunes are only annoying to the visitor. Employees wear ear plugs and deal with it. In fact, the cacophony is a reassuring sign that Jidoka is at work. A song plays 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.

There was also a Kaizen center on the floor, and 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 Sarah 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. A sign near a broken down elevator 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.”

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 Sarah, 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 more of this spirit, especially the optimism of Kaizen. Now, more than ever, it’s a phrase to live by.

About the Author

Agnes Shanley | Editor in Chief