The Prius Blueprint

February 1, 2009 - Tags:

Risuke Kubochi, General Manager of General Engineering, stepped forward and agreed to lead the effort. He was formerly the chief engineer of Celica. He had a reputation for being aggressive and not terribly friendly, but strongly determined to accomplish any task he undertook. Kubochi personally selected 10 middle managers to work on his team. This working-level committee reported directly to a high-level committee of Toyota board members, informally known as kenjinkai (“committee of wise men”), that met weekly. The project had the highest-level executive sponsors from the very beginning.

At first the G21 project was not defined as a hybrid vehicle project. There were two goals:

  1. Develop a new method for manufacturing cars for the 21st century.
  2. Develop a new method of developing cars for the 21st century.

The committee’s job was simply to identify the general concept, and it saw the first task as mainly a packaging issue—how to minimize vehicle size, yet maximize interior space. It also set a target for fuel economy. The then current engine in a basic Corolla got 30.8 mpg and the target was set at 50 percent more, 47.5 mpg. This was thought to be a groundbreaking target. Although the committee was aware of a hybrid engine project, they assumed it would not be ready in time for the G21. The committee members all had full-time jobs apart from the G21 and at first met weekly.

The committee began meeting in September 1993 and had just three months to present their concept to a high-level executive committee. About 30 people, including Executive VP Kimbara and member of the board Masumi Konishi, attended the meeting. Obviously three months was too short to build an actual prototype. But the committee was not satisfied simply presenting ideas, so they developed a half-scale blueprint for the vehicle that took up a good part of a wall.

One of the working-level members that Kubochi had selected was Sateshi Ogiso, who would be the only person who stayed with the Prius until its actual launch years later. The G21 as a clean sheet was a dream project for a young engineer. Ogiso had been charged with organizing the committee meetings and thus was given a kind of leadership role. At the design review session, Ogiso was about to prompt Kubochi to begin the presentation, but was stunned when Kubochi preempted him with “Ogiso, I would like you to make the report.” Ogiso was just a 32-year-old youngster who had only recently made “engineer-in-charge.” He quickly recognized that he had been tricked, which wasn’t the first time that Kubochi had put him on the spot in order to cultivate his leadership ability. But he did an excellent job of giving the report, which was very favorably received by the executive committee. The requirements for the vehicle were identified as:

  1. Roomy cabin space, achieved through maximizing the length of the wheelbase.
  2. A relatively high seat position, to facilitate getting in and out of the car.
  3. An aerodynamic exterior, with a 1500 mm height, a little less than a minivan.
  4. A fuel economy of 20 kilometers per liter (47.5 mpg).
  5. A small horizontally placed engine with a continuously variable automatic transmission (which improves fuel efficiency).

Phase I of this project illustrates three Toyota Way principles.

  1. Principle 9. Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others. We see how involved high-level executives are in a very abstract and future-oriented project that is seen as central to the future of the company—with active sponsorship, including weekly meetings with the study group.
  2. Principle 10. Develop exceptional people and teams who follow your company’s philosophy. We see how some of the best people step up to a challenging project that is seen as important to the company and then work extremely hard after hours to meet aggressive deadlines. They had three months as an extracurricular activity to do extensive research and develop a vision for the project. We also get a glimpse of how leaders at Toyota develop young people. Kubochi could have taken credit for leading this effort, but it was more important to provide a life lesson to Ogiso, who later reflected that “by being placed in the critical situation to give the presentation, I learned to organize issues in my head as I spoke, and acquired a sense of self-confidence” (Itazaki, 1999).
  3. Principle 12. Go and see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation (genchi genbutsu). The team felt uncomfortable presenting only abstract concepts so short of building an actual model, they did the next best thing—they developed a half-size blueprint so the executives could picture the actual vehicle.