Standardizing Work for a New Product Launch

The Toyota Way of handling the chaos of getting an army of people involved in creating and launching a new vehicle is to standardize the work in a balanced way that doesn’t give complete control to any group of employees. Having only engineers devise the standards would be a form of Taylorism. On the other hand, having all the workers come to consensus on every step would be overly organic, resulting in chaos. Toyota’s innovative approach is to develop a “pilot team.” When a new product is in the early planning stages, workers representing all the major areas of the factory are brought together full time to an office area where as a team they help plan the launch of the vehicle. They work hand in hand with engineering and develop the initial standardized work used when the product is first launched. Then it is turned over to the production teams to improve. As Gary Convis, President of Toyota’s Kentucky manufacturing operations, explained:

Pilot teams are put together, especially when we launch a new model, like we just launched the Camry. Team member voices are heard by way of that link.

Usually it’s a three-year assignment. We have a four-year model change cycle, so we’ll have an Avalon model change, then we’ll have a Camry model change, and we’ll have a Sienna model change. So there are enough big model changes to have these guys go through at least one or two before they rotate back out.

There is a great deal of learning for team members on the pilot team about the design and production of the new vehicle, and when they finish their rotation they are back on the floor as team members, contributing to and improving the standardized work. This is important, because launching a new vehicle is an exercise in coordinating thousands of parts, with thousands of people making detailed engineering decisions that must fit together at the right time.

When my associates and I studied Toyota’s product development system, we found that standardization promotes effective teamwork by teaching employees similar terminology, skills, and rules of play. From the time they are hired into the company, engineers are trained to learn the standards of product development. They all go through a similar training regimen of “learning by doing” (Sobek, Liker, and Ward, 1998). Toyota engineers also make extensive use of design standards that go back to when Toyota first started engineering cars. Within each section—door latches, seat-raising mechanisms, steering wheels—engineering checklists have evolved from what has been learned as good and bad design practice. The engineer uses these checklist articles from his or her first days at Toyota and develops them further with each new vehicle program. More recently, Toyota has computerized these articles.

U.S. companies have tried to imitate Toyota’s approach by going right to computers, creating large databases of engineering standards, but without success. The reason is they have not trained their engineers to have the discipline to use the standards and improve on them. Capturing knowledge is not difficult. The hard part is getting people to use the standards in a database and contribute to improving it. Toyota spends years working with its people to instill in them the importance of using and improving standards.