Work Groups Are the Focal Point for Solving Problems

In a conventional automotive plant, white-collar or skilled-trade staff is responsible for problem solving, quality assurance, equipment maintenance, and productivity. By contrast, shop floor work groups are the focal point for problem solving in the Toyota Production System .

Source: Bill Constantino, former group leader, Toyota, Georgetown

The associates who perform the value-added jobs are the most familiar with the actual work and the actual problems that affect the work. Since Toyota exists to add value for its customers and it is team members who do the value-added work, the team members are at the top of the hierarchy. The rest of the hierarchy is there to support them. The next line of defense is the team leader, an hourly employee who worked on the line but has an opportunity for a small promotion. The team leader cannot take disciplinary action but is there to support the team members. The first-line supervisor is the group leader, who is responsible for leading and coordinating a number of groups.

By the standards of many companies, Toyota has an organizational structure that looks very inefficient—lots of leaders for a small number of workers. Team leaders typically have just four to eight workers they support and most of the time the team leaders are not doing production jobs. Group leaders typically have three or four groups.

This concept of bottom-up management and employee empowerment is a cliché in many companies, but Toyota takes this very seriously. The small span of control of the team leaders is more a matter of necessity. In some respects, the TPS bottom-up management is even more challenging for teams, because TPS continuously takes the waste out of the value stream, that is, the inventory is taken out of the process, and it takes out waste from every job position. On the other hand, traditional job layouts are designed with waste built in, or at least little systematic thought has been given to making the layout efficient and synchronized with other processes. This waste is a cushion from the perspective of the worker. Now, remove that waste and replace it with additional value-added tasks. Suddenly the worker has to be on his toes. This would arguably be inhumane if it were not for the team leader system. The team leader is like an on-the-spot physician ready to jump in any time there is a problem, such as when there is a call for help through the andon system (Build a Culture of Stopping to Fix Problems, to Get Quality Right the First Time). The team leader is also a safety valve, always walking the line and watching to see if there are any problems emerging, such as parts getting low or someone getting behind who needs assistance or relief.

The roles and responsibilities for team members, team leaders, and group leaders are summarized  (courtesy of Bill Costantino, one of the first group leaders at the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky). Noteworthy is the progression of responsibilities from team members to group leaders. Team members perform manual jobs to standard and are responsible for problem solving and continuous improvement. Team leaders take on a number of the responsibilities traditionally done by “white-collar” managers, though they are not formally managers and do not have the authority to discipline other team members. Their prime role is to keep the line running smoothly and producing quality parts. Group leaders do many things that otherwise would be handled by specialty support functions in human resources, engineering, and quality. They are integral to major improvements of the process, even introducing new products and processes. They regularly teach short topics. If needed, they are also capable of getting on the line and performing the jobs. There is no such thing as a hands-off leader at Toyota.

This same basic system of team leaders and group leaders applies throughout Toyota. The Hebron service parts warehouse is moving in this direction. You also see something similar in engineering. The equivalents of the team leaders are first-grade engineers who have mastered a specific technical area and take on the role of supporting and developing junior engineers in their specialty. At Toyota, when you are at the working levels of high-volume production—whether it is producing parts, engineering drawings, quality plans, or sales—there is always an immediate mentor there to support you day to day. Nobody is cut loose to figure it out for himself or herself, though the mentorship style is to give challenging assignments and let you struggle until you “pull the andon” and call for help.