Keeping It Visual Through Technology and Human Systems

In today’s world of computers, information technology, and automation, one of the goals is to make the office and factory paperless. You can now use computers, the Internet, and the corporate intranet to call up large storehouses of data, both written and visual, at lightning speed and share it via various software and e-mail. As we will discuss in the Use Only Reliable, Thoroughly Tested Technology That Serves Your People and Processes, Toyota has resisted this information-technology-centric trend. As Suzuki pointed out, going to look at the computer screen is typically done by one person in isolation. Working in a virtual world removes you from hands-on teamwork and, more importantly, usually (unless you do your work on the computer) takes you away from where the “real” work is being performed.

The Toyota Way recognizes that visual management complements humans because we are visually, tactilely, and audibly oriented. And the best visual indicators are right at the work site, where they can jump out at you and clearly indicate by sound, sight, and feel the standard and any deviation from the standard. A well-developed visual control system increases productivity, reduces defects and mistakes, helps meet deadlines, facilitates communication, improves safety, lowers costs, and generally gives the workers more control over their environment.

As the computer, IT systems, and software continue to replace the work of people and companies continue to move whole departments to countries like India that have a workforce steeped in information technology, Toyota will have an increasing challenge to be competitive using its “old” physical human system. How can it continue to make the workplace visual and people-oriented while utilizing the power and benefits of computer technology?

The answer is to follow Toyota Way Principle 7: Use visual control so no problems are hidden. The principle does not say to avoid information technology. It simply means thinking creatively using whatever means are the best available to create true visual control. Toyota has already replaced some physical prototype models with digital models on large screens, with high involvement of engineers in critiquing the design. One thing is for certain: Toyota will not readily compromise its principles and goals for something that is merely faster and cheaper, as discussed in the Use Only Reliable, Thoroughly Tested Technology That Serves Your People and Processes on new technology. Simply putting everything on the corporate intranet and using information technology to cut costs can have many unintended consequences that can profoundly change or even be detrimental to a company’s culture.

The Toyota Way will seek a balance and take a conservative approach to using information technology to maintain its values. This may entail a compromise, such as maintaining a physical visual signal along with a computer in the background, like in the Toyota service parts warehouse in Hebron. Or it may mean using a wall-sized screen to display a 3-D image of a complete vehicle. But the important principle will remain: support your employees through visual control so they have the best opportunity to do a good job.