You are here

Toyota's way changed the world's factories. Now comes the retool

Over decades, Toyota Motor built a corporate culture that was the envy of the manufacturing world.

[TOKYO] Over decades, Toyota Motor built a corporate culture that was the envy of the manufacturing world. Now the car industry's most-emulated company is overhauling the way it brings its vaunted production system to every corner of the business.

The carmaker last month created a single group, staffed with 200 employees, to manage the Toyota Production System, centralising a function that was spread out through the organisation. Their task is to evaluate how core concepts such as kaizen, or continuous improvement, can be applied to new businesses that include car sharing and consumer robots. The person in charge is 59-year-old Shigeki Tomoyama, a career Toyota executive who wields a tablet computer during events, making him look more like a Silicon Valley software engineer than a car guy.

"We want to systematically go over every step in our processes - from R&D to manufacturing, sales and servicing - in order to raise the combat effectiveness of our business as a whole," Mr Tomoyama said in an interview last month.

"The backdrop to all this is president Toyoda's extremely strong sense of crisis."

While analysts expect Toyota will on Tuesday report net income dropped for the first time in three quarters, it's probably still on track to post annual profit growth for the first time in two years. The shares are trading near the highest since the end of 2015. Still, Akio Toyoda says the carmaker his grandfather founded eight decades ago needs to move faster and take more risks to keep up with the likes of Google and Uber Technologies in the race to make cars connected, autonomous and electric.

"Toyota is developing electric vehicles and other new technologies, but at the same time they're going back to basics," said Seiji Sugiura, an analyst at Tokai Tokyo Research Center in Tokyo.

"Their strength doesn't just lie in hardware, but also in soft power. So reinforcing that by creating the TPS Group to implement it across manufacturing and sales is a positive thing."

In the last two years, Toyota has opened a Silicon Valley research centre, set up a US$100 million venture-capital fund and started software companies in Japan and the US with plans to add a European branch this year. The carmaker says it will spend a record US$9.7 billion on research and development in the 12 months through March. In December, Toyota announced plans to have at least 10 battery-electric vehicles in its lineup by the early 2020s, from zero now.

Last month Mr Tomoyama was promoted to become one of just six executive vice-presidents at Toyota. In addition to heading the TPS group, he has a sweeping portfolio that includes being chief of information security, leading the carmaker's Big-Data drive, and helming the motorsports division.

Mr Tomoyama earned his kaizen credentials in the early 1990s, when he worked in the Production Research Division, known within the company as the "temple" of the Toyota Way, where engineers scrutinised every inch of the manufacturing process. 

In 1997, he was appointed by Mr Toyoda, then a mid-level manager, to lead a task force working on a knotty problem: despite the company's success at shaving seconds off production times, cars tended to languish on lots before being shipped to dealers. Mr Tomoyama's diligence earned him the nickname "kaizen man" from Mr Toyoda.

"If we want to make the most of Toyota's strength in creating new business models, it's going to require applying TPS," Mr Tomoyama said. "We want to show people inside and outside the company that TPS is still central to Toyota."


BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to