Building in Quality Is a Principle, Not a Technology

A story I heard from a plant manager at Reiter Automotive (supplier of sound-dampening materials) helped put into perspective what it takes to build in quality. He ran a plant that makes sound-dampening materials in Chicago and supplied them to Toyota. He had a Toyota mentor who was teaching him TPS. The Toyota mentor had suggested they needed an andon system to immediately detect quality problems. So the plant manager got his engineers to spec out an andon system similar to the kind Toyota uses, with light boards hung from the rafters that are directly hooked up to buttons the operator pushes. This was a relatively small plant compared with the Toyota plant, but he wanted to use the very best to implement this important system. When the Toyota mentor visited and he proudly showed him the elaborate andon system they had on order, the mentor said, “No, no, no. You do not understand. Come with me.” He then charged off and drove the plant manager to a local hardware store. He picked out a red flag, a yellow flag, and a green flag. He handed them to the plant manager and said, “Andon.” His point was that implementing andon is not the same thing as buying fancy new technology. Andon works only when you teach your employees the importance of bringing problems to the surface so they can be quickly solved. Unless you have a problem-solving process already in place and people are following it, there’s no point in spending money on fancy technology. Americans tend to think that buying expensive new technology is a good way to solve problems. Toyota prefers to first use people and processes to solve problems, then supplement and support its people with technology.

General Motors early on copied Toyota’s NUMMI plant system of team leaders—hourly associates whose primary job is to support team members. But the team leaders spent a good deal of their time in the back room smoking cigarettes or playing cards. What good is pushing the andon button if nobody is around to respond? In a later incarnation, GM got smarter. In their Cadillac plant in Hamtramck, Michigan, they put in sophisticated fixed-position stop andons. These are full-blown systems. When the button is pushed, the line will keep going until the car enters the next workstation and then the line will automatically stop at a “fixed position.” It is very expensive and in the past GM would have rolled this out quickly to show a payoff. Instead, they refused to turn on the automatic stopping capability until a work team had passed an overall lean audit. GM realized that the andon system would be effective only when the operators followed standardized work, the kanban system was reliably pulling materials to the workstation, workplace discipline was followed, and the team leaders were responding to problems. As a result, each work team struggled to pass the audit so they would have the privilege of having the complete andon system turned on. There were celebrations each time a team succeeded.

In the Toyota Way of doing things, what matters when improving quality is enabling the process and the people. You can spend a great deal of money on the latest and greatest andon and have no impact whatsoever on quality. Instead, you need to constantly reinforce the principle that quality is everyone’s responsibility throughout the organization. Quality for the customer drives your value proposition, so there is no compromising on quality, because adding value to your customer is what keeps you in business and allows you to make money so everyone can continue to be part of the company.

A common Toyota quality tactic is to front-load projects of all kinds, to anticipate problems as early as possible and put in place countermeasures before the problems even occur. Occasionally a time-out is required to reflect on the purpose and direction of the project before moving on. This is done within the context of stretch-timing objectives that are rarely compromised. The Toyota Way is to build into the culture the philosophy of stopping or slowing down to get quality right the first time to enhance productivity in the long run. We saw this repeatedly in the Prius case. Closely related to this philosophy are the problem-solving and organizational-learning approaches of the Toyota Way. It should be clear to the reader by now that all aspects of the Toyota Way—philosophy, processes, partners, and problem solving—support its ability to “build in quality” and satisfy customers.