An Unlikely Chief Engineer Invents a New Approach to Car Development

February 2, 2009 - Tags:

The next step was to develop a more detailed blueprint for the vehicle. High-level executives pondered who should lead the effort and settled on the unlikely choice of Takeshi Uchiyamada as the chief engineer. Uchiyamada hadn’t been groomed to be a chief engineer and never even aspired to this role. His technical background was in test engineering and he had never worked in vehicle design. He had been assigned to “technical administration” and in fact led the reorganization of Toyota’s product development organization into “vehicle development centers,” the largest reorganization in its history. His intention after working in technical administration was to go back to research. Yet, here he was tagged by high-level executives to lead this program blessed by the chairman of the company.

While on the surface Toyota’s decision to appoint Uchiyamada as chief engineer might at first glance seem hasty and illogical, in fact it followed Principle 13: Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options; implement rapidly (nemawashi). In fact, Uchiyamada was uniquely qualified for the task for several reasons. First, this was the first project in decades that involved truly breakthrough technology and would need a level of research support uncharacteristic of most development projects. Uchiyamada came from research. While he was not a design engineer, he did love cars, had a very deep technical engineering background, and his father had been the chief engineer for the Crown—a flagship Toyota vehicle—so it was in his blood. Second, the project was not housed in one vehicle center and would require someone who had an excellent understanding of the new organization to marshal resources, which Uchiyamada possessed, having been one of the chief architects of the new, recently implemented organization structure. Third, a central purpose of the project was to develop a new approach to vehicle development. Someone who had been raised under the old system to be a chief engineer could be blinded by the current system. Someone with proven organizational design skills was needed to take a fresh look.

No one was more surprised by this decision than Uchiyamada. As he explained to me:

As a chief engineer, if there are supplier problems it is the responsibility to visit the supplier and check the line and solve the problems. I did not even know what I was looking for to know what to do in many cases …. One of the personifications of the chief engineer is that they know everything, so even when developing different parts of the vehicle you know where the bolts can go together as well as what the customer wants.

So what could Uchiyamada do, since he did not “know everything”? He surrounded himself with a cross-functional team of experts and relied on the team.

One of the most important results of the Prius project from an organizational design perspective was the creation of the obeya system of vehicle development, which is now the new standard for Toyota. Obeya means “big room.” It is like the control room. In the old vehicle development system, the chief engineer traveled about, meeting with people as needed to coordinate the program. For the Prius, Uchiyamada gathered a group of experts in the “big room” to review the progress of the program and discuss key decisions. The project team found a room outside the fray of normal day-to-day affairs, which became known for housing a weird, top-secret group (G21 project) endorsed by top management. During the development process, Uchiyamada documented in real time the experience of designing a new breakthrough design from scratch. This led to a very confidential 200-page document that can be reviewed only with special high-level permission. Toyota executives achieved their goal of reinventing the company’s design process by intentionally selecting a non-expert chief engineer.