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Toyota: Culture Cure

By Mel Duvall  |  Posted 2006-09-05 Print this article Print

Behind Toyota's assembly line are sophisticated information systems supporting and enabling the business processes that help the automaker eliminate waste, limit inventory buildup and continually improve production.

Culture Cure

As Convis notes, achieving business process management success in the vein of the Toyota Production System requires cultural change within a company. At Toyota, that is achieved by leading through example.

Marshall recalls a situation when the information services department was responsible for a serious disruption in operations on the plant floor. There was a breakdown in the kanban system, a method of issuing a parts order that is a component of Toyota's "pull" just-in-time inventory system. At one time, parts were pulled using kanban cards—actual cards that were sent to inventory staging areas or faxed to suppliers—but now such pull signals are delivered through various forms of electronic messaging such as eXtensible Markup Language (XML)-based technologies.

When the problem was detected on a Monday morning, team leaders met in a war room, essentially a conference room, to map out exactly what had happened, the various systems involved and the likely cause. In the end, it was determined that a large database that was supposed to have been backed up over the weekend, wasn't. The individual responsible ran the backup, but didn't check to ensure it was completed. Determining the cause might have taken longer, but the individual stepped up and admitted not having checked that the backup had run properly.

Marshall says at other companies, a worker might have been afraid to step forward—shutting down the assembly line is a serious error—but Toyota strives to make sure that workers will not be punished for bringing errors, defects or problems to the surface. As a result, Marshall says the department put more countermeasures in place—the technology version of PokaYokes—to ensure the database backup is run and checked properly.

"Everybody feels bad when you impact the business. But we don't talk about appointing blame or whose fault it is here," Marshall says. "If people think there are going to be consequences when they uncover a problem and pull the Andon cord [a cord that stops production on the assembly line], they won't pull it, and we won't uncover the problem."

It's a philosophy that could serve Toyota well in the years to come.

Contributing Editor
Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.

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