Japan KAIZEN™ Study Tour - Toyota Lexus

Day 1: Toyota Lexus
Our first visit was to Toyota Motor Kyushu’s Miyata information center and plant where they produce around 430,000 Lexus vehicles per year. Unfortunately, the standard public tour format is often the only option available when visiting a Toyota plant. Although a public tour only allows a short time and limited opportunity to observe parts of the plant from the overhead observation platform, I still find it impressive to get a live snapshot of the mixed production line and complex internal logistics operations feeding it. Nevertheless, the public tour gives an opportunity to see real-life examples of the Toyota Production System (TPS) and Lean theory and concepts that most people only get to read about.
It looked like the plant may have been dealing with a few challenges when we visited with multiple andon boards lighting up at the same time and showing only around 70% achieved against their production target. In a way it was quite refreshing to see that even at a Toyota plant things are not always perfect. The week before when we visited the Toyota Motomachi plant in Nagoya, they were achieving 97% and the engine assembly line at the Daihatsu Kyushu plant was running at just over 100%.

One of the tour participants pointed out that the final inspection at Lexus appeared excessive considering the in-process inspections and the final inspection target of 100% First Time Through (FTT). Although Toyota’s focus is on in-process quality at every step it does not mean no final inspection is required. Every process is designed and operated to insure that bad quality is not accepted, caused or passed on. It shows a commitment to superior quality and to making sure that no imperfection is passed on to the customer. The financial and reputation cost of letting the smallest imperfection reach the customer is higher than the cost of final inspection. The recent recalls caused by the defective Takata airbags will probably mean that additional checks will have to be introduced. Jon Miller mentioned to me that the automotive industry may have to invest in similar scanning technology that is used by aircraft manufacturers to detect problems with the airbag inflators without destroying them during testing.

The more interesting questions are how many defects are picked up at final inspection and what happens when a problem is picked up in final inspection? I expect that at Toyota or Lexus if a problem is picked up during final inspection it will trigger a robust structured/scientific problem solving process to find the root cause, investigate, explore options, test and select a suitable solution and then implement it by setting a new standard that will be trained and further improved.

Another tour participant was intrigued by the many different music tunes that played in the plant and initially thought is was unnecessary and annoying noise. Of course, the different tunes do serve a purpose. Some tunes are unique to alert specific team leaders to a problem on a specific line that may impact takt time and if it is not resolved in time will cause the line to stop. Other tunes are played as an audible warning by the many automated guided vehicles (AGVs) or the logistics trains (mizusumashi) to avoid collisions.

The bottom-line of the visit to the Lexus plant is that it was great to see the synchronized and steady rhythm of this complex mixed model production line and all its associated support processes. The smart space utilization, lay-out and design of the production lines and individual workstations to minimize waste of movement and transportation was great to see. We also saw great employee ideas like the rakuraku seat that makes it easier for the operators to get in and out and work in the confined space inside the car. I thought the Lexus visit offered a valuable learning opportunity to align theory with practice.

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