First American President of Toyota Motor Manufacturing

Given that the Toyota Way is to make decisions slowly, thoroughly considering alternatives (see Make Decisions Slowly by Consensus,Thoroughly Considering All Options; Implement Rapidly (Nemawashi) on nemawashi), it was not surprising that Toyota took a very long time to establish NUMMI, its first American plant, and then took its time setting up Toyota, Georgetown. While in each case Toyota relied on American leaders, there was a Toyota “coordinator” from Japan mentoring them behind the scenes and the top executive was from Japan. So it was big news when Gary Convis was named the first American President of Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Kentucky in 1999. His selection into this critical position—leading Toyota’s largest manufacturing plant outside Japan—represented a coming of age for Toyota in the United States. It took Toyota executives about 15 years to develop Convis into someone they could trust to carry the banner of the Toyota Way, but the result was a true Toyota leader.

His first job out of Michigan State University was in GM’s Buick division, where he worked in engineering and production for three years. He moved from GM to Ford in 1966. He was not a job hopper and stayed with Ford, moving steadily up the manufacturing organization over 18 years, when an opportunity came up to be interviewed to help lead Toyota’s joint venture with GM as general manager of the NUMMI plant. Ford was struggling, and it seemed like a good time to explore new pastures. Little did Gary know that this was not just a career move. His life, personal philosophy, and way of looking at the world would change dramatically as he learned to understand the Toyota Way. After 15 years as a student of TPS, Gary is as upbeat, energized, and humble about learning from Toyota as if he was a new employee coming to his first orientation.

I learn all the time, but I don’t think I’ll finish developing as a human being. One of my main functions now is growing other Americans to follow that path. They call it the DNA of Toyota, the Toyota Way and TPS—they’re all just very integrated.

Like other Toyota executives, Convis stresses on-the-job experience more than brilliant theoretical insights, which underscores Toyota executives’ proclamation, “We build cars, not intellectuals.” The fact is they are as apt to talk philosophy as they are nuts and bolts. But the philosophy driving the principles of the Toyota Way is always rooted in the nut-and-bolts practice. Gary talks in the self-deprecating, but at same time proud way that is characteristic of his Japanese brethren:

I got where I am because of trial and error and failure and perseverance. That trial and error was on the floor under the direction of my Japanese mentors. I’m very proud to have grown up with Toyota. Some people would look at 18 years and say, “Well, gee, you spent 20 years in the auto industry before the 18 you just spent with Toyota; you’re sort of a slow bloomer!” But this business, I don’t think it’s one where there are fast bloomers. There’s a lot to be said for experience and, if you enjoy what you’re doing, it’s not a long day, it’s a fun day, and it’s something you look forward to doing tomorrow.

Convis met and learned from all of the most famous leaders in Toyota who helped create TPS. So when I met with him, I was surprised he didn’t want to talk about the nuts and bolts of JIT and jidoka. He wanted to talk about the philosophy of TPS and the importance of culture. He pulled out a diagram  that he had obviously put together thoughtfully so he could present what he had learned about TPS through years of actually living it. Though the technical focus includes short lead times and is prominently featured in the definition, of equal prominence is “engaging people toward goals.” Convis sees TPS as a three-pronged beast, where only one prong includes the technical tools often associated with lean production—JIT, jidoka, heijunka, etc. According to Convis, these are just technical tools and they can be effective only with the right management and the right philosophy—the basic way of thinking. At the center of TPS is people.

The practice of genchi genbutsu is easy to adopt as a corporate policy and new hires can be sent out to the shop floor to “go and see” and then report back on what they see. But at Toyota, this is not simply a lesson for the neophyte to learn. The executive or manager must go, see, and really understand the actual situation at the working level. Managers are not just managing technology or tasks; they are promoting the culture. The absolute core of the Toyota philosophy is that the culture must support the people doing the work. Management must demonstrate a commitment to quality every day, but ultimately quality comes from the workers. And you cannot tell people they are important and then risk their health and safety to make production goals that day. This leads to a complex set of interrelated philosophies and practices, as Convis described:

Basically people will do what upper management wants them to do. So if that’s consistent, if they’re not whipsawed and being governed by different priorities, they learn what is truly important and what is not…. The two priorities are very clear—quality first, safety first. Extra effort. Extra caring. It’s that kind of culture that we hope to create, by the way we manage our business.