How it happened: Toyota Production System Leads to 100-fold Increase in Protective Gown Production (Part 2)


Visiting sites where medical protective gowns are being made, Toyota Times Editor-in-Chief Teruyuki Kagawa was able to see first-hand the effects of the Toyota Production System as part of kaizen. In the first part of this series, Kagawa visited Funahashi; this part will follow his visit to another site, this time TOYO KNIT, a sportswear manufacturer, with a factory in Mie Prefecture. The company is one of the seven companies working together as “the alliance of volunteers.” For his visit, he was hosted by Shinya Hasegawa, Executive General Manager of the SWIM Business unit Supervisory Div., and Hiroko Yada, Manager of the SWIM Business unit Supervisory Div.

Sharing Successful Techniques

TOYO KNIT was introduced to the idea of manufacturing protective gowns after reading about Funahashi's efforts in the newspaper. As they also used cutting and welding machines and could even pack and ship product, they thought this was a project they could also help with. That morning after reading the paper, they immediately contacted Funahashi.

On his visit to their facility, Kagawa noticed the same spreader he saw at Funahashi's factory. It appeared that things that had proven to be successful at Funahashi were actively being shared with other factories. This act of sharing best practices is something that Toyota is known for.

And you’ve got the scissors placed here too in their designated places.

Well, we tried out the first roll holder at Funahashi and knew that it worked, so we used the same setup here.

I see.

Proposals from Employees Led to Immense Timesaving

Among the processes in producing the medical protective gowns, one that was refined by one proposal from an employee was the folding process. At first, the protective gowns being produced at TOYO KNIT were being folded by one single employee, as per their usual process used when making swimming suits.

However, because the protective gowns were much larger in size, employees had to reach much further to fold them. The additional motion caused them to develop pain in their backs. To stop this pain from developing and increase the speed of folding, one of the employees proposed folding the gowns in pairs. They found that this method was far more efficient and eliminated the back pain, so they immediately modified the folding process. By the way, Kagawa noticed that they were using a paper tube to release air bubbles here as well.

Before it took us two or three minutes to fold these filmy gowns, but now it takes only about 21 seconds to fold one gown.

Twenty-one seconds. Here again you’re using one of those tubes.

It’s our life stick.


" I didn’t expect that Toyota was so familiar with production sites."

As part of his reporting, Kagawa took time to ask representatives from the seven companies of the “alliance of volunteers” about the production of protective gowns and how things went as they tried to apply the Toyota Production System. Below is a list of the people he spoke with, followed by thoughts and observations shared with Kagawa:

・Akihiko Funahashi : President, Funahashi Co., Ltd (Making raincoats)

・Shinya Hasegawa : Executive General Manager, SWIM Business unit Supervisory Div., TOYO KNIT Co., Ltd. (Making sports apparel)

・Yatsuma Ohori : Senior Managing Director, SUIKOU Co. Ltd. (Sewing womenswear)

・Tetsuya Ochiai : President, HOUWA CHEMICAL.Co.,LTD (Sewing automotive seat covers)

・Syouji Nakamura : President, Hekikai-Giken Co., Ltd. (Sewing automotive seats)

・Nobuki Sugiura : President, Futaba-Sansho Co. Ltd. (Making seats for transportation vehicles and events)

・Yasuro Okagawa : President, Okagawa-Hosei Co. Ltd. (Making womenswear)

"I didn’t expect that they were so familiar with production sites," said President Sugiura of Futaba Sansho. He also said that they were very proactive and worked hands-on at the sites with them.

President Ochiai of HOUWA CHEMICAL recalled how the members from Toyota came and dealt with the situation as if it were their own problem, without hesitation or stepping back from the genba.

President Okagawa (Okagawa-Hosei) informed Kagawa that he was extremely impressed by how Mr. Takahashi from Toyota interacted with his production staff. He said that Mr. Takahashi praised staff members enthusiastically when they achieved their targets and gave them a sense of accomplishment. This kind of attitude motivated the staff members and increased overall production.

They look really gentle but what they say is pretty harsh.


Mr. Takahashi also gave our hardest workers a lot of praise—he’s got this way of saying things. To put it less nicely, he’s controlling , good at controlling people.

Well, Nagoya is the home of (Toyotomi) Hideyoshi, who is famous for being a smooth talker.

But on the other hand, he showed us what we’re not good at doing, and I think that kind of ability is also what motivates people at production sites the most. I learned that from him.

I see.

Maintenance is not an easy job

Behind the dramatic increase in the production of protective gowns in a short period of time is, in a significant way, thanks to the power of “maintenance”. The effort that goes into maintaining the equipment makes a big difference; maintenance workers are a kind of unsung set of heroes who support the site, doing things like making special equipment to spread and pile up materials, disassembling and fixing equipment, such as a high frequency welder that has been immovable for more than 40 years.

"Maintenance" is indispensable for keeping the production process in an ideal state at all times, but Mr. Furui says that "maintenance is not an easy job." When something breaks down, people complain about the maintenance. Then, when everything is working fine, they make comments suggesting that the maintenance crew isn’t doing anything.
When it comes to the Toyota Production System, it is easy for people to pay attention to the work site that is actively producing, but both the work site and maintenance are as important as two wheels of a car.

But one thing that is good —it happened this Saturday as well when I fixed the high frequency welder—is the satisfaction that comes when I fix something. People at the production site seem to appreciate that, saying “thank you”. These kind of words keep us motivated.

Actually, I think you would happily go and fix everything. I have felt every time that your selflessness is what has made Toyota the big company it is today. I thought that’s what maintenance is all about.

Production sites are fun

Kagawa realized that Toyota's power of "genba" might be a trait that appears juxtaposed to recent advanced technologies such as CASE; however, that “analog” strength is what supports the base of Toyota's monozukuri. Toyota's strong devotion to the genba can be seen in Mr. Suzuki's words.

Production sites are fun. Normally, we are stuck in an office with a computer, and it is hard to sit still. We fidget with impatience and try to visit production sites whenever we have the time.

Of course, there are people there. We have to train them. We have to make them feel motivated. Ultimately, it is about nurturing people. You can increase productivity by making processes. But if you make processes while you’re also making the people, you’ll get more and more results. That’s simply fun to do.

Able to revisit Toyota’s origins

Thanks to President Funahashi's aspirations and his willingness to seek help, the production of medical protective gowns grew rapidly from 500 to 50,000 a day in a short period of time. This was at least due in part from motivation of “the alliance of volunteers” and their willingness to accept and implement the concept of kaizen as part of the Toyota Production System.

Kagawa reported that what will stick with him the most was the simple act of creating a process to put away the scissors in the same place. That simple action was the first step in going from 500 to 50,000 gowns.

It's not about trying to change big things—it doesn’t matter how small the change is. If you can change something sometimes even if just by a little, it has the potential to lead to big results. To Kagawa, it was like watching a page from Toyota’s history come to life. This must be what the oyaji and ofukuro (“fathers” and “mothers”, mentors) at Toyota’s genba know—the Toyota Production System.

Lately I’ve been mostly looking at automated driving vehicles, AI, and cutting-edge technologies, but this time I looked at Toyota Production System, Toyota’s traditional strength. Reassessing the system once more has made me realize how big this company’s base is.

Here lies the base of Japanese, and really world, manufacturing.

I’m glad I was able to come here today. I was able to revisit Toyota’s origins, and see how the Toyota Production System can make products, but how it also makes people.

This should become a major motion picture. Which actor should play Mr. Funahashi?