Watching Toyota Production System Live

Toyota Production System

Ever since I read “Toyota Way” by Jeffry Liker almost ten years ago, I was hoping to see Toyota Production System (TPS) live. Finally, my wish come true today during our trip to Japan we’ve visited Toyota city and joined the Takaoka Plant tour.

Three things clearly visible during the tour

There were three things that were extremely visible everywhere in the plant: visualization, order and  hard work:

  • Visualization: everywhere in the factory we could see clear signs showing where items should be put, large displays showing status, delays or problems, Poka-Yoke giving information about properly performed work, or Kanban showing what parts need to be delivered. Simple, clear tools making all information available to everyone, including visitors. I’d love to see this kind of visualization in Agile teams.
  • Order: everything in the Toyota plant was in its place. I’ve seen several factories claiming to implement Lean. In most cases however, items in these plants were not in the right place. Rack and boxes were randomly scattered around the factory. That was not the case in Takaoka. I was unable to find one part not in its clearly defined place. Everyone knows where to put parts and where to look for them
  • Hard work: we were looking for a while at the car assembly and the speed the workers were doing their tasks was impressive. Just-in-time put a pressure on people to finish their work on time. Of course, if they cannot, there’s a number of systems to address the problem including Andon and Poka-Yoke. However, the pace was fast and I don’t think I could do their work for 8 hours.

Three TPS tools I’ve seen

The things I was especially looking for were process tools that Toyota is famous for. I was able to spot three of them:

  • Kanban Cards: to control flow of parts through factory Toyota uses a very simple tool in a form of a physical card. The cards can be spotted everywhere. Every card specify either what’s in the box, or what should be the box – the order sent to the supplier.
  • Poka-Yoke: is a visual indicator of correctly performed work. It has a form of a rod with three lights just like traffic lights. Yellow indicates that some assembly step, such as screwing two bolts, needs to be done; green means that the step has been performed successfully and red means it was not successfully done but the part, such as engine, moved to the next assembly station. In this case, the production will be stopped until the problem would be solved.
  • Andon: has a form of rope that hangs over the heads of employees. Any worker is encouraged to pull the line in case he or she notice any problem or cannot perform the assigned task correctly on time due to various reason. In this case, team lead will help to solve the problem and if that cannot be done before car move to next station, the whole production line will be stopped. It might seem like a huge risk to give everyone on factory floor the power to stop the line, but it’s a clear signal that the quality has the highest priority and any defective part should not go down the line. I find it as the most empowering tool in TPS as well.

Seven facts I didn’t know.

I’ve seen a lot of things I’ve been reading about for last ten years. However, I’ve learned today few interesting things as well. Seven most important for me are:

  • From twelve Toyota plants in Japan, ten of them are in Toyota City region. Most of the suppliers are in one to two hours drive from the plants, so all parts can be delivered quickly. Toyota is more collocated that most IT companies I know, despite the knowledge transfer seems to be even more difficult than transportation of physical goods.
  • New employees start from joining 6-9 weeks training program. It consists of Toyota philosophy followed by learning assembly tasks. Its duration is adjusted to personal abilities of each employee. I’d love to see this kind of investment in developers from software people.
  • Toyota is able to extend or shorten their assembly line over the weekend to speed up or slow down production. They don’t do it by firing or hiring new people, but by changing tools to more adaptive ones. How long it takes usually in big IT company to obtain new tools?
  • During the day the workers rotate through different stations to avoid injuries and boredom from repetitive tasks. If a line worker needs unplanned bio-break he or she will pull Andon line. Team Leader will replace an employee for that period. This means, that everyone on the team needs to be able to perform all the tasks of the team and the Leader should to understand them better than members of his team.
  • Four different models are assembled on the same production line. These come with different engines, interiors and even with driving wheel on the right or left side. These cars are not produced in batches, but every car differs from the previous one.
  • It takes seventeen hours to assemble one car, from stamping to final inspection. Every minute new car is leaving assembly line.
  • Roughly half of the electric power used by Tsutsumi plant is generated from solar panels installed on the site.

A bottom line – it was great to see things I was learning about for years. It was learning opportunity as well. Finally, we just had awesome time taking advantage of Omotenashi or Japanese hospitality. I highly recommend visiting Toyota plant to anyone interested in TPS or Lean.

A bit of History

Toyota Motor company was established by Kichiro Toyoda who’s sold company automatic loom business and decided to invest in car manufacturing. The first plant named Honsa started operation in 1938, few years before Japan joined Pacific War (World War II). After the war Japan experienced extreme economic difficulty. Due to this, Toyota couldn’t copy Mass Production system used by West auto manufactures and started developing their own system (Toyota Production System), known in the West as Lean. In 70’s Toyota opened five production plans in Japan and in 1984 opened its first factory abroad – NUMMI plant in the USA. In 2008 Toyota has surpassed General Motors as World’s Largest Automaker.

You can learn more about Toyota Tour at Toyota Kaikan site