Visual Control and Office Work

I have spent a lot of time at the Toyota Technical Center in Michigan, where they engineer vehicles like Camry and Avalon. For much of this time, Kunihiko (“Mike”) Masaki was the president there. Masaki had worked in many different engineering and manufacturing organizations during his career at Toyota, all using excellent visual controls, so it seemed quite natural to him that the office environment at the Toyota Technical Center should follow the principles of 5S. Twice a year, Masaki would visit each person at his or her desk and ask to see a file cabinet (as part of Toyota’s document retention program). He audited the file cabinets to see that they were organized properly and no documents were there that were not needed. There is a standard way to organize files at Toyota and Masaki was looking for deviations from the standard. A report is then filed and a grade is given. If an area is deficient, associates in the area must prepare a plan for counter-measures and a follow-up review is scheduled to be sure the deficiency is taken care of.

Though this may seem excessive or even intrusive for such mundane activities as filing, for the employee it clearly signals the importance of visual control, especially in the light of the fact that this was the president following the Toyota principle of teaching by going directly to the source and seeing for himself (genchi genbutsu). More recently, this responsibility has shifted to a vice president and has been expanded to spot auditing of each employee’s e-mail organization system, to make sure messages are well organized in folders and old messages are discarded.

One of the biggest visual control innovations in Toyota’s globally benchmarked product development system is the obeya (big room), which was used in the Prius development discussed in The Toyota Way in Action: New Century, New Fuel, New Design Process—Prius. The system is just a few years old. The chief engineer of a vehicle development project resides in the obeya, along with heads of major engineering groups working on the project. It is a very large conference “war room” in which many visual management tools are displayed and maintained by the responsible representatives of the various functional specialties. These tools include the status of each area (and each key supplier) compared with the schedule, design graphics, competitor tear-down results, quality information, manpower charts, financial status, and other important performance indicators. These tools can be reviewed by any of the team members. Any deviation from schedule or performance targets is immediately visible in the obeya.

The obeya is a high-security area and only appropriate representatives from the functional areas are given access. Toyota has found that the obeya team system enables fast and accurate decision-making, improves communication, maintains alignment, speeds information gathering, and creates an important sense of team integration. When I interviewed Ichiro (“Michael Jordan”) Suzuki, the chief engineer of the first Lexus, he was at the Toyota Technical Center to teach them the secret to excellent engineering. His focus on this trip was visual management. He emphasized the importance of using visual management charts and graphs everywhere (showing schedule, cost, etc. on one sheet of paper). He also pointed out that “Using an electronic monitor does not work if only one person uses that information. Visual management charts must allow for communication and sharing.”