The Nikkei reported on June 11, 2010 that Toyota is bringing back front line supervisors, adding a layer of management to staff positions that has been missing since 1989. This is an admission by Toyota, the world’s greatest lean manufacturing company, that they got their span of control in engineering and possibly other staff areas, wrong.
This move is in quite stark contrast to the “de-layering” going on at many global companies in an effort mainly to cut costs. While it may not seem lean to add layers of supervision, it is in fact very lean when done to reduce span of control. Form follows function and in this case the supervisors function as team leaders, coaches and first responders to andon cord pulls (calls for help). This in turn helps expose, catch and correct problems while they are still small, rather than letting them grow into bigger problems. These problems have apparently been escaping in recent years, based on the recalls and quality problems we are seeing at Toyota.
A few years ago we commented about an article citing concern among old-timers at Toyota that the rush increase volume and make large cost cuts in design was moving the company away from it’s principle of slow, steady growth through development of people. “When did Toyota get to be a company like this?” was the question asked in alarm at the way things were being changed. The person quoted in that article was Shoichiro Toyoda, the father of current Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda, who is leading this latest reorganization towards smaller span of control for engineers.
The Nikkei reports that this new team structure will be implemented first in the technology development sections. About 1,000 employees who have been with the company for about 10 years will move into supervisory positions. The span of control is a conservative five engineers per leader. Toyota has not given this position an official title yet, and plans to do so after a one-year pilot, according to Toyota.
For further reading on this important topic, here are three more articles on our blog about supervisor span of control:
How does your company manage span of control in engineering or other professional functions?