Keeping Minds Nimble, Bodies Limber at Toyota

Whenever we visit Toyota in Japan there is always at least one member of our study group who makes a comment about the pace at which the assemblers at the engine line and body assembly line work. At Takt Times of around a minute, workers attach parts steadily, never missing a beat.
How do they keep that up all day long? The answer is that they don’t. At Toyota workers are rotated every 2 hours to another job. They use different muscles by performing a different set of motions. They keep their minds aware by paying attention to a different set of quality requirements.
Not only does this keep the workers minds nimble and bodies loose, reducing fatigue and boredom, there are several definite benefits for productivity and quality.
First, this 2 hour rotation teaches people different skills. It enhances cross training which in turn helps keep Toyota more flexible as a company. As customer demand changes or work content shifts, trained people can be moved to where they are needed.
There is also a benefit to the worker, since the cross trained worker is more valuable to employer and also more employable should they seek work elsewhere.
Second, it makes people think. “We want everyone to think” is the answer we often get to the question of why Toyota rotates people every 2 hours. Thinking about the work they are doing is necessary because you may be doing something you are not as familiar with as the job you started doing at the beginning of the shift.
People are asked to think “How can I prevent errors?” and “How can I make this job safer and easier?” This is a key part of the kaizen effort at Toyota, in the form of their Creative Idea Suggestion System where all workers find and implement improvement ideas each month.
Toyota places a high value on thinking, to the point where I have heard TPS called “Thinking Production System”.
Third, by moving to another process the worker sees how the work they were doing 2 hours ago upstream affects work downstream. They can see the importance of the quality they are building in once they are in the shoes of the downstream customer. This keeps people thinking about the customer and makes a Value Stream-focused workplace possible.
Citing a variety of reasons, too few companies outside of the Toyota group (our best clients included) practice job rotation within the day. The 2 hour job rotation should be considered a core part of TPS and a kaizen tool on part with others used by companies on the Lean journey.