At Toyota, quality is about catering to customers. The business plan is called The Toyota Touch, because it calls for a long term philosophy placing the customer first. In achieving quality, Toyota pays close attention to the people it brings into the fold. At Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada, applicants had to demonstrate communication skills, departmental flexibility, the ability to work in teams and the initiative to seek out weaknesses and improve them. Experience in the auto industry was not a pre-requisite. In fact there were few employees who could claim any such experience.
The plant in Canada is responsible for part of Toyota’s success there. It is equipped with up-to-date machinery and is clean and well-lit. Local competitors, such as Honda Canada Inc, Hyundai, and Cami Automotive Inc., (a joint venture between GM and Suzuki Motors Co.) do not enjoy the same benefits.
Most important, however, is The Toyota Touch philosophy, which is interwoven into all operations. Decorating the wall are signs such as, Customer satisfaction starts at the process and Customer satisfaction: the heart of our business. These may be corny values, but if you believe in them, they pay big dividends.
At Toyota, though, “customer” is a word defined very generally. Managers do not expect initial line workers to be thinking about the end-user all the way down the line. My customer is the person in front of me, noted the line worker. And I’m the customer of the person before me. This focus on internal customers gives workers a real person to cater to in their own performance.
Respect for co-workers accompanies the attention to the customer. For example when an error occurs the line stops and the workers together attempt to fix it. There is no blame throwing or sulking. What is significant is what the team does with the problem after the line is stopped. No one points a finger at the worker responsible for the problem. Instead the team focuses its energy on the problem. You have to give people room to solve problems themselves. Otherwise you stymie their initiative.
At the same time, Toyota uses errors to the company’s benefit through the Japanese process of kaizen, or continuous improvement. When a team sees a problem, they kaizen [used as a verb by the Canadians] it and come up with a better way to do the job.
Evidence of kaizen is scattered throughout the Toyota plant. For example, the air-driven tracks from which power tools hang –within workers’ comfortable reach-resulted from a worker’s suggestion.
And it was the company’s maintenance team that built the tracks. Workers also came up with the idea for the set of rollers that batteries slide down, making the job easier for the workers who install batteries in cars.
Kaizen has also come in the form of challenges to employees. Unlike other North American auto manufacturers, Toyota does not employ a single industrial engineer. Instead, Toyota relies on Toyota employees. In 1990 when the company wanted to increase productivity from 50,000 to 65,000 cars a year, management challenged employees to make it happen. Through kaizen, employees were able to improve processes and reduce total production time by 30 seconds a car, a significant reduction.
The philosophy of kaizen extends also to the administrative offices. A sense of community exists among the 200 administrative employees, most of whom work in a single open room approximately.
At Toyota, quality is not about superficial glamour inside the plant. Rather, it is about the way managers treat employees, co-workers treat one another, and the company treats its customers. It is a way of life.