By Kevin Meyer
Interesting article by John Shook in the latest MIT Sloan Review on the culture at NUMMI. The GM-Toyota joint venture let Toyota experiment with applying TPS in the U.S. while GM could learn about TPS. Toyota learned, GM ignored, and the rest is pretty much history.
Two sections of the article are particularly interesting and contrast Japanese (or at least Toyota) culture with that of the U.S. and GM. First, the concept of andon.
The best example of how the culture was changed at NUMMI is the famous stop-the-line — or andonandon
— system on the assembly line. All of the GM and NUMMI people who
underwent training in Japan experienced learning and working with the
stop-the-line system (or some variation of it). One of the decisions to
be made in establishing production at the joint venture was whether to
install the stop-the-line system. For Toyota, of course, that was no
decision at all — it was a given. The system epitomizes
Toyota’s belief in, and commitment to, developing the means to enable
employees to work in a way that “builds in” quality.
A key Toyota tenet is “Respect for People,” the conviction that all
employees have the right to be successful every time they do their job.
Part of doing their job is finding problems and making improvements. If
we as management want people to be successful, to find problems and to
make improvements, we have the obligation to provide the means to do so.
Of course that level of employee power scared the crap out of GM.
When NUMMI was being formed, though, some of our GM colleagues questioned the wisdom of trying to install andon
there. “You intend to give these workers the right to stop the line?”
they asked. Toyota’s answer: “No, we intend to give them the obligation
to stop it — whenever they find a problem.”
A perfect demonstration of how Toyota respects people.
In Toyota’s system, each worker on the assembly line knows precisely
what his job is. He is given the knowledge and skills to know when he
has encountered a problem (an abnormality that prevents him from
successfully completing his task), what to do when he’s found such a
problem, and exactly what will happen when he notifies his leader about
the problem. His team leader will come to provide assistance within his job cycle,
or the time available to complete his assigned responsibilities. (Note:
The line doesn’t actually stop right away. It halts only after it
reaches a certain point — called a “fixed position” — and only after
the team leader has made the decision to let it stop.)
That translates into a promise from management to the work force:
“Whenever you have a problem completing your standardized work, your
team leader will come to your aid within your job cycle.” That’s quite
a promise to a work force of a couple thousand whose job cycle is in
the neighborhood of one minute. But Toyota learned that that is what it
takes to enable workers to build in quality and to be engaged in
problem solving and making improvements.
This of course leads to how the different companies, and cultures, approach problems. First, learn the value of problems themselves.
Every person in a supervisory capacity, including hourly team
leaders, visited Toyota City for two or more weeks of training at the
Takaoka plant. The training included long hours of lectures but, most
importantly, practical on-the-job training in which they worked
alongside their counterparts to learn what was to be their job back in
California. At the end of each training tour, we asked the trainees
what they would most want to take back with them to Fremont of all they
had seen at Toyota. Their answer was invariably the same: “The ability
to focus on solving problems without pointing fingers and looking to
place the blame on someone. Here it’s ‘five whys’ [which means simply
asking “why?” until reaching the root cause of any problem]. Back home,
we’re used to the ‘five whos.’” Call attention to the problem to solve
it, or to the behavior to change it, but not to the individual for
Then deal with the problem.
“Problems” were indeed viewed completely differently. Americans like to
respond “no problem” when asked how things are going. One phrase known
and used with gusto by every early member of NUMMI was the Japanese
word for “no problem,” which, when spoken with a typical American
accent, sounded pretty much like “Monday night.” So when Japanese
trainers tried to ask how certain problems were being handled, American
NUMMI employees could be heard all over the plant cheerily shouting,
“Monday night!” The response to this by the Japanese was, “No problem
is problem.” There are always problems, or issues that require some
kind of “countermeasure” or better way to accomplish a given task. And
seeing those problems is the crux of the job of the manager.
No problem is a problem. Problems are good. Thanking employees for finding problems, even if they are their own. What a concept. What respect for people.
Of course the interesting epilogue is that Toyota executives have forgotten their own shop floor lesson.