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Christian Wolcott


The Company Tour Does Toyota

Professional discretion advised

Published: Tuesday, November 8, 2016 - 13:04

T he following is for mature quality audiences only. Is it unwise to take people who are new to lean on a tour of a Toyota facility running at top efficiency? Is the sight of a glossy, mature lean factory a kind of pornography for young engineers, new leaders, and even seasoned managers seeking to boost the business? Is it too strong a dose of what lean thinking can ultimately look like after 50-some years of hard work?

Benchmarking has been around forever, and tours have grown in popularity as companies find the need to acquire momentum to achieve in-this-moment results. I’ve personally led a number of tours to excellent facilities, both in Japan and the United States. There are good to great examples on nearly every continent now, and they are cropping up in sectors other than just manufacturing.

It’s safe to say that 1970s-era manufacturing muda is finally melting as the oceans of proactive process thinkers are rising. This is exciting by itself. Now it’s all about access and options. This provides a rich and tempting resource for consultancies, practitioners, and private groups to arrange tours for their people to “go and see.”

See indeed. What they see, at a minimum, is something that’s taken years to acquire and install and groom and build and shape and tend and practice, practice, practice day after day and week after week.

In the case of a Toyota tour, what they see is a naturally grown manufacturing wonder, free and clear of the tethers of “lean methodology.” It’s not the cumulative result of multiday projects concentrated and dispersed over  a “strategic two-year transformation plan.” That’s not to say those approaches are faulty, but they are detached from the reality that a tour group experiences in a facility with a mature Toyota Production System in place.

The desire to “look” typically comes after a year or so of hand-to-mouth projects that slowly pay their dividends of saved time, space, and materials.  Then the call is made to “do a benchmarking tour,” and a group is ushered into, say, a Lexus plant, and their tourists’ eyes sizzle with what they behold from their catwalk view.

Pretend that you’re standing up there. You see extreme visual management, extremely tight, line-side materials-replenishment pull, kanban systems, and extreme attention to the details of all that we understand lean to be. Everything moves at a highly perceptible and audible cadence, second by second. You can actually hear the takt rhythm of the line.

Bins and tooling are seemingly within perfect reach for every move, and the colorful, mixed vehicle types form in front of your eyes. Employees move fluidly from step to step, as elegant as any stage performer. You can count the work-in-progress inventory below the catwalk and figure how many minutes’ worth of inventory are line-side: 42 minutes.

Yes, the signage in Japanese is a barrier for most, but you can spy Ishikawa diagrams on a team meeting board located just off the line, and lo and behold—could it be?—a “4S” poster. OMG. You’ve heard that for mature Toyota Production System facilities, that fifth “S”—sustain—isn’t an issue, and here’s real-time proof of that. Your heart and mind race to absorb, scribble notes, and make hasty drawings.

Then, just as you settle into being utterly mesmerized by the scene, the tour guide says, “Thank you for visiting; it’s time to return to the visitor center.”

It’s over, but what you’ve seen has likely changed you in profound ways. You can’t “un-see” the final assembly area, for what has been seen is, by all comments, “awesome, great, amazing, incredible, unbelievable,” and your business mind has been altered irrevocably. It’s been stretched by images that bear no resemblance to what you know as the production floor back home.

So, may I offer you a ticket into the peep show? It’s guaranteed to be a fantastic and provoking experience, one that will challenge the views of others, and most important… you.


About The Author

Christian Wolcott’s picture

Christian Wolcott

Christian Wolcott is the senior advisor for Kaizen Institute’s Japan Insight Tours, and heads up organizational change and development activities for the company’s North American business unit. As a passionate change agent focused on inspiring organizational excellence, Wolcott has more than 25 years of continuous improvement experience building high-performance teams.


Interesting article. It

Interesting article. It definitely can be overwhelming to see something mature, if your company is just starting out on a lean journey.

I have one small error to point out. I don't usually worry about small typos, but this one is bugging me, for some reason. When referencing the 4S poster, it says "low and behold", when it really should be "lo and behold".

lo blow

Right you are Scot. We have changed low to lo.