Leaders Are Not Excused from Genchi Genbutsu

Kiichiro Toyoda learned from his father the importance of getting your hands dirty and learning by doing. He insisted on this from all of his engineers. A famous story about Toyoda has become part of Toyota’s cultural heritage :

One day Kiichiro Toyoda was walking through the vast plant when he came upon a worker scratching his head and muttering that his grinding machine would not run. Kiichiro took one look at the man, then rolled up his sleeves and plunged his hands into the oil pan. He came up with two handfuls of sludge. Throwing the sludge on the floor, he said: “How can you expect to do your job without getting your hands dirty!”

For some reason, sludge in oil pans seems to creep into a number of Toyota stories. When I visited Jim Press (COO of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.), he related the following story:

Our dealers see executives from Japan more often than domestic dealers see executives from Detroit. I recall when I was with Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda on a visit, in the mid-’70s. And we had just introduced a four-speed automatic transmission. It was very unusual to have an automatic transmission fail, if ever. It seemed indestructible. We were visiting a dealership. And the dealer complained about the fact that a car just came in with a transmission that had failed. Dr. Toyoda, in his pressed suit, walked over to the technician, got in a dialogue with him, walked over to the oil pan where he’d drained the oil from the transmission, rolled his sleeve up and put his hand in this oil, and pulled out some filings. He put the filings on a rag, dried them off, and put them in his pocket to take back to Japan for testing. He wanted to find out if the filings were the result of a failed part or if it was residue from the machining process.

In most large U.S. companies, the president is like the king. The king is not someone who you casually run into and strike up a conversation with. One can judge rank in these U.S. fiefdoms based on office size, windows, furniture quality, carpet quality, how difficult it is to get an appointment, and yearly bonuses.

When I last visited Toyota in Georgetown, Kentucky, to interview President Gary Convis, I also had to go through public affairs and secretaries. A secretary led me into a luxurious conference room in the front office and offered me something to drink. Convis was late, which is also quite typical of visits like these. So I wandered a bit under the pretext of going to get coffee. The executive offices were quite spartan for someone of his rank and stature. But what was odder was that the vaunted 5S of Toyota was in disarray here. There were boxes every place and his assistant was busily packing boxes. When I asked what she was doing, she explained, a bit disgruntled, that “the boss wanted to be near the shop floor so he could be where cars are being made, so he moved to one of the offices in the middle of the plant with windows overlooking the assembly line.” His assistant seemed a little annoyed that she had to leave the nice front-office facilities with their outside windows. But she seemed to understand, pausing and then explaining: “He is the most shop-floor-oriented president we have had.” This is quite a compliment when past presidents included the likes of Fujio Cho.

When I interviewed Don Jackson, vice president of manufacturing of the Georgetown plant, he spent more time with me than we had scheduled. He had several calls that he did not take. Finally he got one that got his attention, and it wasn’t from higher up.

Jackson: [Yeah, I’ll be right down. Just a second, OK? Bye.] I am sorry. I have a team member concern meeting. I have to be there.

Liker: Is this something you usually handle?

Jackson: Yes. The group leader or superintendent could handle it. But I want to investigate it for myself. And I want them to see that this is important to me. I want the team member to see that.

Liker: I’ve heard about the concept of managers spending their time on the floor. Is that true even up to your level? Do you really have that much time to spend on the floor?

Jackson: Typically my average day is 10 to 12 hours. I usually start out on the production floor around 8:00 and I pick an area of the plant I visit in the morning to sort of assess the last 24 hours of what took place. And from that point on, I’m pretty much confirming different parts of the operation or the annual plan activity throughout the plant. Part of the annual planning process is milestones and how you’ll achieve efficiency improvements or quality improvements or supplier improvements. So, based on our annual plan, we are following those items up. And I do weekly department head reviews on the floor. The team members are pretty motivated by that. I actually come, see their improvements, and give them some suggestions.

Liker: So you spend a lot of time here on site, as opposed to traveling.

Jackson: Well, when I was managing quality, I spent probably 50% of my time visiting suppliers and then 50% in the plant, but now probably about 95% in the plant.

Liker: One last question. Many companies bring in managers from outside the company. Can a Toyota plant manager be hired from another company?

Jackson: I think that would be pretty difficult. I recently hired a person from General Motors and I brought him in at the department head level. It’s really the first time it’s been done here at Georgetown. He was pretty unique. He grew up through Saturn, spent a couple of years at NUMMI, so he had a little bit of experience hands-on versus maybe operating from HIS office. I think a lot of the plant managers at a company like Ford, for example, are looking at the financial side and looking at more of the manpower and efficiency from a computer screen versus on-the-floor management. And our philosophy is management on the floor. If you can manage from the floor operation, then that’s the same way the group leader will manage and the same way the assistant manager will manage. Then they’re in control. And I’m spending that much time on the floor because I’m trying to develop the staff in my department.