JKE Day 1: Harmony and Toyota

By Ron Pereira Updated on March 18th, 2008

Awesome.  That’s how day 1 of my Japanese Kaikaku experience turned out.  I am not even sure where to start or what to say.  My mind is so full… and I have 4 more days to go!

Big Harmony

big-harmony.jpgAfter breakfast we began our day with a short lesson on Japanese culture.  Brad Schmidt, our guide and managing partner of Gemba Research, explained the importance of harmony in Japan. 

Specifically, he explained how Japan is the land of big harmony.  He went on to say that we needed to do our best to not disturb the harmony during our travels this week.

Since we are outsiders, so to speak, Brad also explained that our actions are multiplied by 10.  For example, if we make an attempt at properly greating our Japanese hosts in the morning with a nice “Ohayo Gozaimas” (sounds like Ohio Go Zie Mas) we gain major points.  Ohayo Gozaimas means good morning in an extra polite manner.

However, if we then turn around later in the day and choose to not return a bow and konnichiwa (good afternoon) with our own bow and konnichiwa we will give the aforementioned harmony a good punch in the ribs.

After this short lesson we were off to the Holy Land of Lean – Toyota Motor Kyushu.

Toyota – Simply the Best

tps.jpgI have been in a lot of factories in my day – some of them quite good.  Likewise, I have read all the books about the Toyota Way, Toyota Talent, and how the TPS machine changed the world.  But nothing, and I mean nothing, prepared me for what I experienced this morning. 

Since we weren’t allowed to take pictures or video, there is just no way I can accurately describe how awesome this place is.  The best I can do is to say everything about that place is done with purpose.

It started with the greeting (and bowing) we received from the nice ladies upon our arrival.  They moved with precision and knew exactly what they wanted to happen and when they wanted it to happen.  After touring the show room (where they allowed pictures) and watching a short video we were off to the plant.


When you first walk into the plant a sense of calm comes over you.  I expected much more hustle and bustle.  I expected much more noise.  Instead, I felt that same sense of purpose once again.

I love to watch things work.  When I am at McDonald’s, for example, I watch how the guy assembles a Big Mac.  Well, watching people work in this Toyota factory nearly brought tears to my eyes!  I mean it.  People seem to float about in the plant like they are on air. 

Assembling Beauty

As we walked along the cat walk we were able to gain a birds eye view of the assembly operation.  There was just so much to see… it was overwhelming.  So instead of attempting to take it all in a little bit I decided to zoom in on one particular operator whose job it was to assemble the center console and a piece of the door weather strip.  If I rememder right he was assembling a Highlander. 

This man, probably in his early 20’s, simply amazed me.  He moved with such precision and accuracy I thought I was watching a robot.  Here is the gist of what his job was.

While inside the car (that is moving I might add) he installed the center console.  Without leaving the inside of the car he was able to grab his automatic screwdriver and screws (which were at point of use) and install several screws.  He was then able to grab and attach a longer bit to the screw gun before installing the final screws. 

Once he was done with this he grabbed the weather stripping, which was laying on the floor beside him, and then floated to the outside of the car where he quickly pressed it into position.  All of this was done is less than takt time (around 1 minute). 

The most amazing thing was how calm and relaxed this man looked during this process.  Don’t get me wrong, he was hustling.  But it was a controlled hustle.  He had an amazing sense of purpose.  I watched this man cycle through this process several times and consistent doesn’t do what he did justice.

I have so many notes to review, including notes on my voice recorder.  Once I review these I will share more details of what I saw at Toyota.

Ultimate Honor

The last thing, and perhaps the best part of the Toyota visit, happened on the drive out of the campus on the bus.  The nice lady who was our tour guide stood outside and waved as we drove off.  No big deal, right?

Well, Brad told us to watch out the back window.  He told us how she would continue to wave and bow as we drove away.  He wasn’t kidding.

We must have been a quarter of a mile away… and I could barely see this girl.  Brad told us to keep watching.  Then she did it. 

As we were nearly out of her site this young lady took a deep and pronounced bow and held it for what seemed like 5 seconds instead of the shorter, faster bows she offered before.

I mean this when I say this small act of humilty moved me.  Never has someone showed me this much respect and honor.  In many companies you are lucky to get a smile and a good-bye… let alone a deep and pronounced bow as your bus is nearly out of site. 


We also visited a company called TOTO today.  I will share what I learned and saw there later this week.  It was also amazing. 

But, for now, I need to rest.  I need to reflect on how I can be more humble and show half as honor as that young lady did this morning.

Tomorrow night the hotel room I am staying in doesn’t have Internet connection so day 2 highlights will be a bit delayed.  I will get them out as soon as possible. 

Until then, I leave you with a virtual bow and an Ohayo gozaimas (for those who read this in the morning) and konnichiwa (for those who read this in the afternoon).  I can’t remember what good evening is!

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  1. Adam

    March 10, 2008 - 2:37 pm

    Ron – thanks for sharing this. I have dealt with Japanese in the past and have also been impressed with the honor side of the working relationship. It is something that is just missing for the most part here in the UK and sounds like America too.

  2. Karthik Chandramouli

    March 10, 2008 - 3:23 pm

    I am cross-posting this comment, which I originally wrote in response to a similar update from Mike Wroblewski’s ‘Got Boondoggle?’ blog.


    As a member of Toyota’s North American Operations Strategy team, I had the privilege to visit Toyota Motor Kyushu (TMK) in February, 2003.

    Quite simply, I found TMK to be one of the most impressive, well-managed factories I’ve ever seen.

    The workforce was incredibly motivated, and the power of their simple, low-cost suggestions were visible everywhere.

    50% of their hourly workforce was female — a HUGE difference from any other Toyota plants in Japan. It was refreshing to see this example of diversity in Japan.

    The plant itself was unusually quiet, even for a Toyota factory, with a natural lighting system that was a stark contrast to even the most well-lit Toyota factories I had seen.

    Also, the physical surroundings of the plant were designed to be environmentally-friendly, so the plant blended into the surrounding landscape and exuded a Zen-like quality that is hard to find at any manufacturing site.

    Within Toyota, TMK was viewed as a TMK was viewed as a source of innovation within Toyota, and team members from other Toyota plants visited TMK on a regular basis to learn from their experience.

    One secret to their success might be the fact that TMK started as a separate, contract mfg. company (known a “body maker” within Toyota).

    Even after Toyota absorbed TMK back into the mothership, they continued to maintain a strong entrepreneurial sense.

    As part of their “BT2” (Break Through Toyota) initiative, Toyota set a 3-year goal to reduce fixed costs by 30%, in order to improve cost competitiveness of their Japanese plants vs. China.

    Their Motomachi plant had benchmarked TMK to derive targets that would allow them to achieve this aggressive goal.

    So TMK was a source of learning even within the highly accomplished Toyota network of factories in Japan.

    I vividly remember walking the bodyweld line, and being awed at every andon (visual control) board on the line reading “99.9%” uptime.

    It was a powerful message. Admittedly, it was early in the day, and all plants have problems, but it was an indicator of what a motivated team with great management systems can accomplish.

    My amazement only continued to increase, as we came across a visual control board on the recent launch of the then-new Harrier / RX300 (483N).

    The chart showed that, while running the old Highlander model at full volume on the same line, TMK launched an all-new vehicle and ramped it from Quality Confirmation Stage (QCS) to mass production (steady-state) volume in just eight (8) days!

    Our team marveled at this level of excellence, and when we commented on how Toyota’s North American plants could not ramp a new model so quickly, we were told that even other Toyota plants in Japan could not match this ramp so quickly!

    What differentiated TMK from other Toyota plants was the visible enthusiasm for continuous improvement — we called it “Kaizen Spirit”.

    The workforce at that plant is a competitive weapon and the plant’s management harnesses the power of ideas in a way that I’ve never seen before.

    The last point I want to emphasize is quality. Only a handful of processes were flagged as a special, “Lexus quality” step (similar to a critical safety or quality check in any plant).

    There was NO discernible difference between the manufacturing processes for Lexus RX 300 / Harrier (Asia version) and Highlander, and Kruger (Asia version) — and not just because these vehicles shared many, common parts.

    To me, it was about the high quality standards that pervade all Toyota plants in Japan. They don’t differentiate between high- or low-margin vehicles in manufacturing.

    Bottom line — TMK is one of the best factories in the world, and anyone who has the opportunity to visit should do so!

    Original comment:

  3. Ron Pereira

    March 12, 2008 - 6:29 am

    Thanks for the comments Adam and Karthik. I am working on organizing my thoughts for another post. Stay tuned!

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