Toyota Returns to its Roots: People-Focused Manufacturing


When many manufacturers are looking for advanced machinery to build their products, Toyota is doing the opposite. Toyota is focusing on training their employees to do things by hand, returning to the craftsmen mentality of the company’s humble beginnings.

In their Honsha plant, employees are hammering and forging crankshafts by hand, rather than using the traditional automated process. Mitsuru Kawai, senior technical executive at Toyota Motor Corp sees this as a good thing. Making the parts from scratch gives the workers a deeper understanding of the car-making process, said Kawai in an interview with “We cannot simply depend on the machines that only repeat the same task over and over again. To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and skills to teach the machine.”

This comes as part of a larger effort to reign in Toyota’s expansive growth and instead focus on quality and efficiency. With General Motors facing large-scale recalls for faulty parts, Akio Toyoda, CEO of Toyota Motors Corp is aiming to avoid the dangers that come with growing too quickly. He has instituted a three-year freeze on new car plants and has directed the company’s energies towards investing in hands-on training and improvements. Already, this hands-on effort has eliminated about 10 percent of material-related waste in the crankshaft process at their Honsha facility.

By introducing multiple work lines dedicated to manual labor in each factory, the direct contact with the work process allows for more opportunities for Kaizen, the philosophy of continuous improvement.  Takahiro Fujimoto, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Manufacturing Management Research Center, points out that automation distances the employee from the process, making improvement difficult. “Fully automated machines don’t evolve on their own,” said Fujimoto, “Mechanization itself doesn’t harm, but sticking to a specific mechanization may lead to omission of Kaizen and improvement.” You can learn more about how to foster Kaizen improvement efforts at your organization with üttana’s Problem Solving video series.

By focusing their effort on people, rather than elaborate automation, Toyota is bucking the trend for large manufacturers. Being able to adjust to changing circumstance is a key part of Lean and while the transition can be difficult, the benefits of getting your hands dirty will pay off in the long run.