Editor-in-Chief reflects on the essence of the Toyota Production System


The Nagoya-based, rainwear manufacturer Funahashi started to produce medical protective gowns out of a desire to help local healthcare facilities. Following a plea for help to meet growing demand, they were joined in their efforts by an “alliance of volunteers” that included Toyota. Toyota, an automobile manufacturer, didn’t have the know-how to help make the protective gowns, but by sharing the principles of its Toyota Production System (TPS) by dispatching its specialists to the production sites, it was able to help increase the production of the gowns by the other manufacturers from just 500 a day to 50,000. To those involved, Toyota’s knowledge of manufacturing, often called monozukuri, that they shared was the miracle needed to meet the growing demand. Following on-site visits to determine just how TPS was shared and implemented, Editor-in-Chief Kagawa pauses to look back at what he learned doing his own interviews, including what he thinks should be preserved and what it means to be itching to help, offering what you can to improve the situation for all.

Supporting the frontlines of healthcare facilities by returning to the roots of manufacturing

Q. What are your thoughts and feelings after reporting on Funahashi?

Funahashi is located in an older, modest-sized building that looks like a traditional local factory in Nagoya. It’s a small company, much smaller compared to Toyota, and the first thing I thought was interesting was that the President of Toyota chose to help a small company like this based on an ad it posted requesting support. After seeing everything at this company I thought, ‘so this is the place President Toyoda chose.’

What struck me was how the people working there were very quiet and sincere, seeing the many things they have quietly accomplished so far, and knowing how their world had completely changed from making rainwear to protective gowns. The changes must have been jarring for them. But, they were also beaming with the assurance of having taken a positive step forward.

I feel like I was able to see the origins of small and mid-sized companies taking part in Japanese manufacturing. It feels like for the first time in a long time, I saw the production processes that built the foundation of Japan in days past, before we could just sit in front of a computer and work remotely, before we could just pick up a smartphone and take care of whatever problems we have right away. And the fact that now they’re supporting the frontlines of healthcare facilities saving people’s lives adds an interesting duality to it.

TPS is not only about skills training, but also the mind

Q. What did you think the Toyota Production System was?

As I said during the final wrap-up, while of course Toyota is producing technology, it also equips people with the ability to push themselves to their limits and achieve their fullest potential. And this is not Spartanism, or seeing whether people can or cannot do something, but about setting achievable targets, using praise or whatever means necessary to draw people emotionally and help ensure that they can reach their target. So it’s more than just about producing something; it is about utilizing people’s minds to guide them definitively to achieve the goal.

It nurtures people’s minds to achieve the goals – that was the very intriguing part. Conversely, there’s nothing technical about it. I mean, there is. Like the maintenance workers and staff from the production sites are involved, and if they don’t come up with the technical ideas, they won’t be able do it. But they have to decide what to achieve in their minds first and then introduce techniques suited to the situation and establish them. You achieve the goal by doing both, the thinking and implementing changes to techniques, in tandem with each other.

I mean, these workers have had no relationship at all with Toyota, but Toyota people are working here. Doesn’t it seem odd to anyone else that people would be dispatched from an automobile company to show a rainwear company how to make protective gowns? They would need to do some genchi genbutsu (going to the source to get the facts) just to procure ideas, but, there they are, coming up with ideas saying, ‘First let’s do this.’ I’m sure they realize that some things they suddenly come up with aren’t coming from genchi genbutsu, but come from their own careers, from things they’ve done at certain moments or times in the past. Whatever the source, it comes to them and they apply it. They take that to be the source and put it to use.

So they really have to have the experience, the intelligence and the mental fortitude, and Toyota is just amazing in how it develops these kinds of people. Toyota is the kind of company that can send many people like this to other organizations. It’s amazing how they can respond to any type of request.

Toyota Times started based on the President’s announcement when he said that Toyota was going to become a mobility company, and explained what that really meant – we needed to find out if what he was saying could become true. I feel like today we got some kind of answer from the reverse of that.

The foundations of monozukuri should be preserved

Whether it’s automated driving, technology, robotics, AI, powering a car with fuel cells, or even Woven City, all of these things are built upon Toyota’s hardware infrastructure that involves a gradual shift to software. But it’s not like Toyota is just going to completely change here. It is changing of course, because the times require that there has to be change now.

But still, for the first time, I saw with my own eyes monozukuri (manufacturing) at its foundation, a foundation that should never change. While this part won’t change, other parts, such as the portion that sits above this foundation, or the part about becoming a mobility company, will change, but what’s inside won’t change, like having a black box that stays the same. I could see this strength today, especially in how maintenance workers talked about things, the genchi genbutsu method of making things, how the quotas were presented, and, in turn, how they motivate people. In fact, the experience seems to have even changed President Funahashi’s son (as he agreed to succeed his father as head of the company) —looking at all these things, a part of me thought that Toyota will indeed become a mobility company, but at the same time, it won’t completely become one either.

But that’s not what this is all about. Toyota is not just an automobile company. The company creates miracles in people, brings happiness to people and informs others of it, while making cars, and became one naturally through the making of cars. Just because it’s transforming into a mobility company to meet the needs of the times, it doesn’t mean that the monozukuri that runs underneath will change.

It seems that President Toyoda wants to talk to people at production sites most about Woven City. Before COVID-19, I watched a video of him talking passionately about it. While I’m sure some people in a production site somewhere get it, and some people in parts manufacturing also understand, and even the president grasps this intriguing structure, today I feel like I saw the flip side of this—parts that were hidden until now, perhaps parts people tried to forget, the parts that I thought would be ok to forget, even parts that I somehow thought would disappear [in the transition], but these parts won’t disappear—they are the basics.

Monozokuri, manufacturing, is about skills and technologies, and I don’t know if it’s a mechanism of the heart, but it is a strength that only Toyota has. In terms of percentages, I think Toyota has an incredibly large number of people with this kind of mindset, and that’s why I think it will succeed at whatever it does.

The meaning of “when a crisis like this comes, you’re eager to jump in and help”

Of course there may be difficulties. The difficulties might be like the current situation with COVID-19, which no one had ever even anticipated. But while overcoming this and showing its many transformations, while advancing this manufacturing foundation, it will move forward like a caterpillar inching along. That’s what makes it exciting.

So, it’s like the president says, when a crisis like this comes, you’re eager to jump in and help, and I know what he means by that. Didn’t he say that he wasn’t surprised at all at a time like this? He says that this time it’s different from 2011; this time he isn’t depressed and can say it’s going to be okay. This is why the President can say, ‘It’s different this time.’

Even though at the root, it’s called the Toyota Production System in technical terms, when I saw the Toyota Production System today, I thought, what name would I give it? I want to give it some Toyota Times-esque name. Maybe I can give it a name if I look around a bit more.
It’s about the people at production sites tightening each screw, doing the welding, building up their experience and expertise, being able to adapt to whatever is thrown at them—it’s all those things. There are the techniques, the skills, and the mentality. The mental side is big—it’s the part that says if you get to 100, then 200 is possible. If you get to 200, then 300 is possible. You can’t normally say this about all production. But they say they can do this for all types of production, and they come up with ideas for it. They can make possible what was not possible, achieve it, and do everything from the macro challenges to the micro challenges. But in the end, it all starts from simple changes like ‘Put the scissors here.’
Toyota connected the generations of one person’s family by asking where the scissors should be put. That’s what it’s all about, right? The last scene of a movie about this story would be someone going over to the scissors. This is like a scene from a movie. If I were director, in the background, out of focus, would be the father and the son hugging—that would be out of focus and then boom! In the foreground in focus would be the scissors.

It’s really amazing, right? ‘Toyota Production System’ - that’s a title no one understands. People won’t know what kind of movie it is, and then it turns out to be a heartwarming family story. Then, finally, for the last cut, there’s the scissors.

Yes, that’s the title. It has to have impact.
――: Maybe it has a little too much impact?