See America, Then Design for America

April 20, 2009 - Tags:

The 2004 Sienna is what Toyota considers a major redesign—a new and improved version of its highly ranked minivan. Toyota engineered it to be bigger, faster, smoother, quieter, and about $1,000 cheaper. Toyota also designed in many small but important enhancements that make life easier for the North American driver. Many of these enhancements were the result of genchi genbutsu.

The chief engineer job of developing this Sienna was assigned to Yuji Yokoya. The primary markets are the U.S. and Canada with some sales in Mexico. Yokoya had worked on Japanese and European projects, but never a North American vehicle. He had seen various parts of North America, but not specifically with the eyes of a chief engineer developing a vehicle for North America. So he felt that he did not really understand the North American market. Other managers may have hit the articles on marketing data, but that is only one thing you do at Toyota. Yokoya went to his director and requested he be permitted to make a trip. He said, “I want to drive all 50 states and all 13 provinces and territories in Canada and all parts of Mexico.”

Andy Lund was an American program manager at the Toyota Technical Center assigned to assist Yokoya. He had an opportunity to take part of the trip through Canada with him. He related the following example of Yokoya’s determination to go and see a small town in Canada called Rankin Inlet in Nunavut:

He arrived at a very small airport and tried to reserve a car, but there were no rental car companies there or in the whole town. So Yokoya-san called a taxi and a minivan-type taxi picked him up. He tried to speak to the taxi driver to make a request, but the driver did not speak English well enough for Yokoya-san to understand. Eventually the taxi driver’s son came out and translated. The taxi driver agreed to Yokoya-san’s request to hire the car but drive it himself. As it turned out, the town was so small Yokoya-san drove the taxi through the only roads in minutes and was done.

Yokoya achieved his goal of driving in every single U.S. state, including Alaska and Hawaii, and every part of Canada and Mexico. In most cases they were able to rent a Toyota Sienna, looking for ways to improve it. As a result, he made many design changes that would make no sense to a Japanese engineer living in Japan. For example:

  • The roads in Canada have a higher crown than in America (bowed up in the middle), perhaps because of the amount of snow they get. They learned driving in Canada that controlling the “drift” of the minivan is very important.
  • When driving on a bridge over the Mississippi River, a gust of wind blew him very hard and Yokoya realized that side-wind stability was very important. Driving through the crosswinds of Ontario, he was alarmed how easy it was for trucks to blow the minivan aside. If you drive any place with a crosswind, the newer Sienna is much better.
  • When he was driving the narrow streets of Santa Fe, Yokoya found it hard to turn the corner with the previous Sienna and improved the turning radius by 3 feet. This is a huge accomplishment, since the new version is also significantly bigger.
  • By practically living in the Sienna for all these driving trips, Yokoya learned the value of cup holders. In Japan, distances are usually shorter. You may buy a can of juice, but it is more common in the culture to drink this outside of the car. In America, on a long trip, he learned it was common for one person to have one-half empty cup of coffee or bottle of water and one full one. You don’t want to wait until you stop and have already run out. Therefore, you really need two cup holders per person, or even three, if a person wants a cup of coffee plus two bottles of water. There are 14 sturdy cup and bottle holders in the Sienna. And there are numerous compartments and pockets for those long trips as well.
  • Yokoya also noted the American custom of eating in vehicles rather than taking the time to stop and eat. In Japan it is very uncommon to eat in the car, partly because the roads are narrower and trucks wind in and out, so you need to focus on the road and periodically take a break from the stress. The luxurious American highways lead to more relaxed driving, using cruise control. So he learned the value of having a place for hamburgers and fries by putting in a flip-up tray accessible from the driver position. This option had been previously adopted by Toyota minivans in Japan but is even more useful for the North American market.

The original concept for a longer minivan also came from genchi genbutsu. Dr. Akihiko Saito, who was responsible for all of R&D for Toyota globally, believed in the design philosophy that “small is smart.” The philosophy is to adopt the smallest possible exterior to minimize the weight of the vehicle while achieving the appropriate interior volume. During a visit to the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, he took a trip to Home Depot. He just stood in the parking lot and watched—like he was in the Ohno circle. What Saito saw were Americans buying large things, like 4’ x 8’ plywood, and putting them into the back of their pickup trucks and Honda Odysseys. Back at the technical center, he also saw how a sheet of plywood fit into the Honda Odyssey but not the previous generation Sienna. Mr. Saito approved the size to accommodate the 4′ x 8′ plywood for the new Sienna on the spot.