Achieving No-Compromise Objectives

January 31, 2009 - Tags:

Since so much of the success of Lexus depended on achieving these breakthrough performance objectives for the engine, and since this depended so heavily on production engineering, Suzuki presented a number of strict requirements to the engine production engineers, whose response was largely discouraging. Their first reaction was that you cannot make parts that are more precise than the tolerances of the precision instruments you’re using to make them. At the time, Toyota had the most precise instruments in the world for machining engine parts (e.g., high-precision machine tools for machining castings into crankshafts, pistons, etc.). And so Suzuki said, “Oh, OK, I see your point.” But backing away from these breakthrough performance objects would mean the end of his “dream car.” So he turned to his superiors for help and was able to get them formed into a Flagship Quality Committee (The “FQ Committee”).

This committee was composed of head executives representing three divisions in Toyota—R&D, production engineering, and the manufacturing plant. The person who at that time was in charge of production engineering was Akira Takahashi. He told Suzuki, “Look, Toyota’s already making products that are exceptionally high quality and to bring in more precise equipment to meet the accuracy and precision demands you’re asking is out of control, it’s ridiculous. You’re asking too much.” Not willing to give up, Suzuki said, “OK, I’ll tell you what. Try to make one of these high-precision products, an engine or transmission, and if we can’t do that, if that doesn’t work out, I’ll quit. I will give up on my request.”

Takahashi agreed he could make one of anything as long as it didn’t have to be in mass production. So he put together a team of his best engine engineers and they developed one high-precision engine that met Suzuki’s tight specifications. It was a hand-built engine and, when it was tested in an existing vehicle, there was remarkably little vibration with extremely good fuel economy. The team of engineers and Takahashi got very excited and they immediately began discussing how they could replicate this with mass production equipment. By working with Takahashi and going to his superiors and creating the FQ Committee, Suzuki was in a very clever way practicing Principle 13: Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options; implement rapidly (nemawashi). The nemawashi part of this principle is to take the time to build consensus across and up and down the organization. By asking the engineers to build an actual engine, he was using the Toyota propensity for genchi genbutsu (Principle 12: Go and see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation). In this case, he chose to work on an actual engine instead of speculating about its viability based on theoretical arguments.

As Suzuki explained:

The people at each one of these different departments, R&D, production engineering, and so on and so forth are looking toward the policy of their superiors to see how to act, and naturally once I was able to bring Mr. Takahashi from production engineering over to my side, things became much easier to do. So there were various troubles and problems along the way, however, every time that happened I would say thousands of times, tens of thousands of times, “counter measures at the source, follow the concept of ‘this yet that.’” The end result was not just my effort alone, but all the people along the way who originally opposed what I was doing, and who all came around and were able to achieve all these targets that I had set in the first place.

Another key engineering feat was to cut down on wind noises. The engineers would attach many tiny microphones to the window at the clay model stage, and then check to see if they had achieved a quiet noise level. The “yet” challenge was trying to balance aerodynamics with styling. If you try to adopt elegant styling, you tend to bring down the aerodynamic efficiency. On the other hand, if you have good aerodynamic efficiency, styling will suffer. Styling developed a bunch of clay models to achieve the distinctive and refined appearance Suzuki was after and the stylists were obviously very proud of them. Unfortunately, none of them passed the stringent aerodynamics test. So what do you do?

Suzuki’s approach, as with the engine, was to find the most talented engineers, challenge them with the goal, and ask them to try real things rather than just analyze and theorize. So he found an exceptional aerodynamics engineer and, choosing a clay model from the styling studio, challenged him to modify the design until it achieved the correct aerodynamic results. The aerodynamics engineer said, “I will take that clay model and reach the goals that you want—0.28 on the coefficient of drag.” The aerodynamics engineer decided to physically cut and modify the clay model himself, a job normally done by the modeler, requiring several iterations with a lot of verbal discussion between the modeler and the engineer. He cut here and there and finally ended up with a vehicle that was aerodynamically matched to the target. It looked terrible. He had lost all the fine styling features of the designers. But through this process he was able to understand the aerodynamic characteristics much more quickly and deeply than if he had been giving verbal instructions to the clay modelers and waiting for the revised models.

Through this hands-on experience, he uncovered reference points that he could feed to the stylists to simultaneously improve aerodynamic performance while achieving excellent styling. By deciding to personally cut the clay, which Suzuki encouraged, the aerodynamics engineer sped up the development of Lexus and got a deeper understanding of the aerodynamics. This was another example of Principle 12 (genchi genbutsu).

As a result of Suzuki’s engineering approach of achieving no-compromise objectives, the Lexus program took off and accomplished exactly what he wanted—a smart design and a very smooth ride. The feel of the ride at 100 kph and 160 kph was practically the same, despite the fact that you were traveling 1.6 times faster. To say the least, the consumer was impressed, and it showed in the numbers sold. At the time of the Lexus launch, Mercedes-Benz’s three models (300E, 420SE, 560SEL) had no rival in the U.S. market. But Lexus, with only one model, was able to sell, in one year, 2.7 times the number of all three of those well-established Mercedes combined. As of 2002, the Lexus was the best-selling luxury car in the United States.

The creation of the Lexus spawned an entirely new luxury division of Toyota and placed their image in the elite of the luxury market—the original goal of visionary Togo. It also gave rise to a new spirit of innovation in Toyota’s engineering. When Toyota started out in the automobile business, the engineers had no choice but to be innovative. As Toyota became a global powerhouse with clearly delineated product families, its thousands of engineers became specialists tweaking the next Crown and the next Camry.

Lexus broke the behavioral mold and engineers who had known only the conservative, risk-averse Toyota suddenly were working on a bold, new, challenging project. This renewed spirit would carry over into an entirely new project, with new objectives and challenges. Toyota was about to reinvent its vehicle development process with the Prius.