By on April 17, 2014

Toyota factory near hard-hit Sendai. Picture courtesy cbsnews.com

Twenty years ago, as a young Merchant Mariner, I was sent to Japan where the ship I was assigned to, the Sea-Land Spirit, was undergoing a major refit. The ship had begun life as a LASH ship, a vessel that carried cargo-filled barges which it offloaded from its stern via huge, rail mounted cranes that ran on tracks down the length of its deck, and now, after the demise of that business model, it was being converted it into a container ship.

Prior to the refit, the ship had been virtually abandoned, left to rot in some bayside backwater for many years, and it had taken a pounding from the elements. To get it back into service, the ship was towed to Korea where it underwent most of the major modifications, after which it was then taken to the giant Mitsubishi works in Kobe, Japan for the final touches. It was there, so I was told, that Japanese laborers called into question the quality of the Korean’s work. Some of the massive steel braces that had been welded to the deck, they found, were as much as a centimeter off. Shocked by the poor quality of their counterparts’ work, the Japanese shipyard workers cut the braces off the deck, moved them a fraction of an inch and welded them down again.

Photo courtesy of cdn2.shipspotting.com

Photo courtesy of cdn2.shipspotting.com

The Japanese have a reputation for doing things right. Who else could take an iron ore of questionable quality and forge it into blades renowned for their strength, flexibility and sharpness? Who, but the Japanese, could take a pasty skinned, round face little girl and turn her into an object of enduring sexual desire? All cultures make things, but it is only in Japan that the making of things, “monozukuri” is elevated into an art unto itself, and where skilled craftsmen, who spend their entire lives honing their craft to perfection, become “gods.”

In recent years, however, thanks to the amount of production that has been handed over to robots, the number of “gods” on the factory floor has dwindled. Toyota, in particular, has noticed the problem and, according to a recent Bloomberg article, the company if now taking steps to reverse what it sees as a new form of brain drain by taking jobs away from robots and giving them back to men. The logic is slyly simple but infinitely deep, craftsmen, it goes, will always look for ways to innovate, always seek out easier more efficient methods and even find ways to reduce waste while robots can only do what they are programmed to do.

robots.jpg

Over the past three years, the article continues, Toyota has introduced more than 100 “manual-intensive” workplaces at factories all around Japan. In one of the sections, men manually turn and hammer red hot steel as it is forged into crankshafts in much the same way that Henry Ford’s workers once did. True to form, the men in the section have been watching and learning and the result of their efforts has been a 10 percent reduction in material waste and a shortening of the production line that will soon be applied to the automated processes used to make crankshafts in the next generation Prius Hybrid.

There is no doubt that the robots are here to stay, but Toyota’s recent experiments show that keeping humans closely engaged in the process can pay real dividends. By empowering workers and encouraging them to become skilled craftsmen who truly understand what it takes to build cars, Toyota is setting the stage for innovation. It is, I think, a uniquely Japanese solution but it could be applied here in North America as well. Despite the many people who decry the lack of skills and poor work ethic of the North American factory worker, I believe that there are a great many men and women in our factories who would jump at the chance to work harder. Everyone, I think, wants to be valued and most people want to make a difference. This could work here too, maybe some of our own best and brightest should take a look at what’s going on.

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31 Comments on “At Toyota, Craftsmen Get Hands-On In Search Of Innovation...”


  • avatar
    alsorl

    So this pretty much proves Toyoda itself knew they have been building crap for the past 5 to 10 years.

    • 0 avatar
      Quentin

      You certainly see what you want to see…

      They probably noticed high scrap costs for parts that didn’t fit in the ideal world of robot vision systems but were built to spec or high fault rates in those automated systems. Or maybe the cost of building a flexible robot to do more nuanced things was unreliable or too expensive, etc. There are lots of reasons to go with automation and there are lots of reasons not to. Humans are more flexible and can kaizen at the process. Robots, especially when you consider the safety equipment that goes with them, are much more hamstrung to making small changes or even trialing small changes. Considering that the Toyota Way is so heavily focused on the line workers having the ability to stop the line when they notice something off/wrong, I’m not surprised in this development. Robots have very limited ability to raise their hand and stop the line.

      Considering that Toyota remains at the top of Consumer Reports, JD Power (initial quality and dependability studies), and True Delta, I’d have a hard time saying that the data exists to say they have “been building crap for the past 5 to 10 years”.

      • 0 avatar
        alsorl

        The cost to toyoda was not from to much scrap metal and use of robots. The cost was do to the millions of recalled toyoders, costing millions of dollars.

        • 0 avatar
          DrGastro997

          So you’re suggesting Americans are buying crap as a consumer? If Toyota is making crap as you say, they wouldn’t be at the top year after year. Your so-called opinions are just that…

        • 0 avatar

          > The cost to toyoda was not from to much scrap metal and use of robots. The cost was do to the millions of recalled toyoders, costing millions of dollars.

          You must be one of those people who has trouble using floor mats correctly.

          • 0 avatar
            daiheadjai

            Don’t mind him…
            Alsorl is in DEFCON 1 since GM is getting hammered in the courts (of public opinion and elsewhere).

      • 0 avatar
        CRConrad

        @Quentin: “Or maybe the cost of building a flexible robot to do more nuanced things was unreliable or too expensive, etc.”

        https://www.kuka-timoboll.com/

  • avatar
    Waterview

    Huge kudos to the worker who takes the time to say “this is a centimeter off, we can do better”. More kudos to his boss who gives him the latitude to make that decision.
    My father was a craftsman and I was frequently in the company of these men as I grew up. Their skill, patience, and dedication was almost intimidating (but a worthwhile value lesson).
    It’s interesting that Toyota is trying to improve on something that is already pretty damn good.

  • avatar
    tonycd

    Everybody in every industry responds to feeling they’re valued. It’s been proven over and over again that, so long as you pay somebody adequately, money isn’t the chief day-to-day motivator in the workplace. At work as at home, people live up or down to your expectations of them.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      This X10000000. There will always be those who are lazy, and those who will work hard no matter what. Getting those inbetween to become motivated workers is not about throwing money at them. Egage your staff, listen to them, and value their input. You would be amazed at what they will accomplish.

  • avatar
    Marcus36

    “It’s interesting that Toyota is trying to improve on something that is already pretty damn good.”

    And that my friends is the Toyota way.

    • 0 avatar
      bryanska

      Two great books:

      “The Machine That Changed the World”

      “The Case for Working With Your Hands”

      • 0 avatar

        I second The Machine that Changed the World. Havne’t read the other book, but probably should.

      • 0 avatar
        tubacity

        http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100844390

        Like everything else, there is more than one view of the Japanese system.
        This author writes his experience.
        It has hours a day unpaid involuntary overtime, “surprisingly unhealthy work environment, a high rate of injuries due to inadequate training, fast line speeds, crowded factories, racism, and lack of team support. And in conversations with his colleagues, he uncovered a culture of intimidation, subservience, and vexed relationships with many aspects of their work and surroundings.”

  • avatar
    Cabriolet

    Nice to see a picture of that old Sea Land Vessel. It has been many years since i heard mention of Sea Land Service. Since Maersk Line absorbed the old Sea Land ships and dropped the name many years ago it is like Forgotten history. I was in the shipping business for many years and remember the good old days. And yes i agree that Toyota has to get their act back in place. Their latest offerings are not quite as nice as their older offerings. To be blunt they are quite cheap. I know quite a few people that looked at Toyota’s newer offerings and found them lacking in any quality. They of course took their business elsewhere.

  • avatar
    nguyenvuminh

    I know I’m painting with a very broad brush but I’m continuously amazed by how the Japanese and the Germans are so meticulous and detail-oriented. Moreover, I’m impressed by how they put the human element (skill, creativity, teamwork, treated with dignity) at the forefront of any project or initiative. They value what people can bring to the table rather than view them as “resources” that can be outsourced anywhere.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    “By empowering workers and encouraging them to become skilled craftsmen who truly understand what it takes to build cars..”

    This phrase is the key to your article. Empowering the workers. But..isn’t that exactly what W. Demming preached over 60 years ago?

    • 0 avatar

      > This phrase is the key to your article. Empowering the workers. But..isn’t that exactly what W. Demming preached over 60 years ago?

      Deming’s contribution, much as he perhaps wants it to be, wasn’t business jargon but using math and science to improve production.

      As it turns out, smoothness/reliability/etc of sophisticated mechanical devices in large part come down to minimizing tolerances, and measuring + improving everything is how the Japanese come out on top.

  • avatar

    > It was there, so I was told, that Japanese laborers called into question the quality of the Korean’s work.

    Anecdotes aside, there’s good reason why Hyundai is surpassing every else at shipbuilding.

    They have their own (korean) version of these “gods” who bend massive walls of steel with nothing but a blowtorch.

    • 0 avatar
      marmot

      Three Korean ferries have gone down in the last 20 or so years with the loss of hundreds of lives. Is Korean manufacturing quality mostly or partly to blame?

      • 0 avatar

        > Three Korean ferries have gone down in the last 20 or so years with the loss of hundreds of lives. Is Korean manufacturing quality mostly or partly to blame?

        LOL WUT, the last incident was in 1993 due to overloading, and before that a liner in 1970. This recent one was a Japanese built ship.

        Maybe you should revise that headline to: “Japanese shipbuilder killing Koreans in new Asian maritime war?”

      • 0 avatar
        05lgt

        I’ll bet no Korean ships sank when there weren’t any on the ocean. See where I’m going? If there are a hundred times as many Korean ships as there used to be and the incidence of sinkings doubles, is that proof of decreasing quality?

  • avatar
    marmot

    The American workers in Indiana who built my 2004, 2006 and 2011 Siennas did a great job. These vans ride like large Jaguars and are a pleasure to own. They are incredibly dependable and problem-free.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    I’m lucky enough to work with a large number of craftsmen and there are even some gods in the plant. It’s in the US, and we’re not unique. I love good Japanese quality goods, but don’t rule out innovative quality oriented American workers and products. (They aren’t cars though).

  • avatar
    Pch101

    “By empowering workers and encouraging them to become skilled craftsmen who truly understand what it takes to build cars, Toyota is setting the stage for innovation.”

    That’s actually highly risky if the business model is dependent upon a lot of skilled craftsmen.

    A good business model requires an ability to execute it effectively. Toyota designed its lean system so that people who had fairly average skills could be trained to do whatever jobs that were needed. Not quite as mindnumbing as Ford’s version of mass production, but not retro, either. Setting up a high-volume production line that is dependent upon heroes for its success is pretty much begging for failure.

    I suppose that the downside of machines must be that it is more difficult to maintain continuous improvement, since the machine doesn’t learn anything and then relay the lessons learned. Perhaps this approach finds a balance that involves just enough humans that the machines can get the help that they need.

  • avatar
    canddmeyer

    These ‘craftsmen’ must have been on vacation the week the 2015 Camry front end was designed and approved.


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