Minding the Length of a Toy Duck’s Neck

On the front page of the January 27, 2006 Wall Street Journal there was an article titled In Tot TV Shows, Money is in the Toys. I’m always delighted to find lessons about Lean manufacturing in unexpected places. The article told how the ability to effectively merchandise the toy version of a character on a children’s TV show affected not only the look of the toy, but the design of the character in the TV show, and even what the character could do in the TV show itself. The marketers suggested design changes to the products (the characters in the Pocoyo TV show) considering what would sell and how the children would play with the toy.
In one case the neck of a duck called Pato was shortened because “the neck was too long to be made into a soft toy”. Here is an example of the manufacturing side telling the creative side what to do, and winning. It’s beyond design for manufacturing, it’s design for manufacturing and merchandising. The people concerned with making money (marketing, merchandising) were stepping all over the creative people’s territory – or you could say they were putting the customer first. This is Lean thinking.
It’s been all over the news about how Ford is betting their future on “innovation”. The news from Ford has received wide press, both positive and negative and I don’t need to throw in my two cents here. However, I think an IndustryWeek article titled Continuous Improvement — Auto Companies Must Change From Within was very thoughtful and provides some important context on this topic.
In summary, the IndustryWeek article made the case that the Toyota Production System is an internal value system or company philosophy, rather than a production system. The article criticized stock analysts and the corporate executives who pander to Wall Street for creating a focus on the term results rather than a commitment to long-term improvement. The author concludes that Ford and GM need to listen to customers and do kaizen, in order to survive.
What they need more than anything, though, is a solid establishment of internal values that refocuses every single area of the companies on continuous improvement and taking dictation from customers.
Says the author in the January 24, 2006 IndustryWeek article. I couldn’t agree more.
One particularly telling statistic she cited to illustrate the difference between Toyota and an unnamed automotive OEM was this: the unnamed OEM had 140 types of catalytic converters for all models, while Toyota had 5. The complexity cost result from having 140 variations is immense. At this OEM, it’s a case of the artist telling the manufacturing guy how long the duck’s neck should be, never mind the customer. At Toyota, it’s the other way around.
Innovation is about coming up with new things, which is all very well so long as you mind the length of the duck’s neck. In Lean manufacturing there is a tool called Production Preparation Process (3P for short) which requires changes in the design of both the product and process in order to deliver what the customer wants at the lowest cost, on demand with zero defects. More than many other kaizen tools, the 3P approach requires an organization to change the way they look at how they sell, market, produce and design products. Success at 3P is one good indicator both of Lean manufacturing operationally as well as in philosophy.
On the darker side of the Wall Street Journal article about children’s TV shows, what we have here is a captive audience of 2 year-olds being the targets of sophisticated marketing and merchandising campaigns. On the other hand, they’re just toys. The automotive companies could learn a thing or two about listening to their customer and continuously improving their products and processes by tuning into children’s television. They are full of happy stories and important life lessons. It couldn’t hurt.