By Kevin Meyer
For the past week, Toyota's leaders have wrestled with the fallout from
an unprecedented recall of 4.5 million vehicles that will likely cost
the automaker $2 billion in repairs and lost sales. Here at the
company's largest North American plant, the workers who assemble two of
those recalled models are thinking more than ever about quality.
Those employees still understand that the power of the Toyota system revolves around people, especially the brains of those people.
Workers affected by the idling had the option of taking paid
vacation or unpaid leave, but the vast majority came to work, with many
taking training sessions, cleaning assembly line stations or applying
new coats of paint. But it's also been a time for the plant's more than
200 "quality circles" to meet and find ways to solve assembly problems,
searching for sometimes elusive answers to Toyota's quest for better
efficiency and lower costs.
circle, a program done globally at Toyota plants, consists of seven to
eight employees across the plant who volunteer to focus on a particular
issue. When the assembly lines are running, the circles meet after work
or during break times.
So what types of problems and issues are tackled?
"Sometimes it's tough to work on the processes while the line is up,
so this is an opportune time this week to go to the process and make
some modifications while the line is down," said Nancy Corey, quality
circle administrator in Georgetown.
On Friday, among the teams
meeting were one examining how to make faster and less expensive
repairs to tools and another looking to recycle a supplier's velcro
"Some things seem very small but they have a big impact," Corey said.
Small things… small improvements. Toyota is known for many suggestions per employee per year and the art and science of kaizen. The cumulative effect is massive in terms of productivity and quality.
Toyota is also known for the andon – celebrating the discovery of problems as a chance to improve, and the stopping of the line to ensure those discovered problems never see the light of day. Contain the problem, fix the problem, then prevent the problem from ever reoccurring. I saw it myself when I visited the Lexus factory in Kyushu.
Toyota's executives, perhaps in their haste to grow and conquer new markets, forgot that last part. They still have a chance to survive the increasing maelstrom if they leverage what their employees still remember.