More Gems from Gemba-focused Executive VP Kawai

By Jon Miller Updated on September 29th, 2019

In a blog post last year, we described how gemba-focused Toyota Executive VP Kawai spends a typical day at work. In a series of interviews in IT Media, a Japanese online business magazine he continues to drop gems.

He was asked about the TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture) strategic initiative. It aims to improve the appeal, performance and cost of cars by changing the basic architecture of basic frames and vehicle powertrain units. The scope involves new designs, integrating product development across vehicles and platforms, standardizing parts, revisiting manufacturing processes, and more.

Interviewer: In other words, TNGA is about the standardization of parts?

Kawai: No. In the first place, TNGA is a much larger effort. Simply put, it is “involvement by everyone”.

He described a product development line in which the engine assemblers are over sixty years old. Their job is to do the work and complain, “It’s heavy! It’s difficult! It’s not error-proof!” so that the young team leaders and engineers use their brains to make the work lighter, easier and error-proof. When production lines are designed away from the gemba by people not directly observing and listening, the result is a process that requires more correction after starting up.


Asked about the balance between increased investment in automation and the investment in involving and developing people, Kawai revisited the theme of “automate only after understanding and simplifying the human work”.

One example he gave was developing a process to insert a 9 millimeter shaft into a 10 millimeter hole. Production engineers would devise a robot to precisely locate the shaft with 0.5 mm clearance on both sides. On the other hand, a team member suggested a mechanism to position the shaft to one side, leaving 1mm of clearance to work with. The result is about a 10X difference in cost and complexity of equipment. This is an example of expertise blindness preventing engineers from seeing the obvious and reaching for an over-processed solution.

Another delightful demonstration from Toyota uses the example of teaching a robot arm to write. The graphic from the article shows the human writing on the left and the robot writing on the right.

Source: IT Media Online

In the top row, the human who taught the robot was not experienced in calligraphy, the art of brushstroke writing, and but human instructor on the lower row was. It is clear that the person who knows the key points, tips and knacks to writing beautiful brushstrokes can get better results from a robot arm.

Creative Idea Suggestion System

Kawai had thoughts on the importance of the Creative Idea Suggestion System for Toyota to be able to continue adapting with the times.

Kawai: For the company to change, the creativity and craft of the gemba becomes essential. The creative idea suggestion system has been in place at Toyota for more than 50 years. The plant leaders have been working with that system since they were new hires.

He described how the company spends typically between $5 and $1,000 to implement employee ideas that make the work easier, safer and the quality better. When employees see their ideas turn into reality this raises intrinsic motivation and engagement.

In addition to intrinsic motivation, employees are paid as much as $10 for submitting good ideas. The more they engage in kaizen, the more they are recognized by being promoted, and given opportunities to apply their creative thinking to the design of new production lines.

When asked about differences between national cultures and how this affects engagement with kaizen, Kawai focused on similarities. People everywhere like to build and create things. People like to be recognized for their ideas and efforts. People need to have fun at work. It’s the management’s responsibility to build a system for this and to make it part of people’s work.

TNGA may be the most important technology and design initiative at Toyota in decades. Yet it is not all about cars and components; it is all about people.

  1. Sid Joynson

    September 30, 2019 - 12:02 pm

    Sensei Kawai’s comment illustrate elements of the 4 R’s at the heart of TPS?lean.

    RESULTS. Supply customers with the best; Products, Services & Experiences (P.S.E) available in your industry. We create organisations that are successful now & in the future; they must also be secure, fulfilling & enjoyable/fun places to work.

    RESOURCES. Use the minimum amount of the 7 M’s; manpower, materials, methods, machinery, movement, minutes (time) & money to achieve the results.

    RESOURCEFULNESS. Engage the resourcefulness of all our people to eliminate wastefulness, & continuously improve the Productivity, Quality, Cost, Delivery & customer Delight (P.Q.C.D.D) of your P.S.E’s.

    RESPECT. From my own experience we must see ‘RESPECT’ as the password that gives access to our people’s total ability (talent, creativity & enthusiasm). Engaging all our people’s abilities is essential to the success of the first 3 R’s.

    • Jon Miller

      September 30, 2019 - 10:59 pm

      Well put Sid.

  2. Jack Day

    October 16, 2019 - 1:40 pm

    Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) is a model that will keep this company in the forefront of the automotive industry. The Toyota model for efficient manufacturing dates back to the 1940’s with Taiichi Ohno implementing a “just in time” production to cut wastes. Sensei Kawai’s implementation of TNGA places importance on not only the product and how it’s made but how it directly effects the workers that produce it. Kawai explained how having elderly people work on the manufacturing allowed for the most productive Ohno circles, I believe in this method of product development because it is centered around making life of the employee easier. Kawai spoke on how implementation of employee ideas into production was a large focus, I would like to know how this information is processed. In the podcast “Continuous improvement in the fast food industry with David Reid,” David Reid talked about how employees of Chick-fil-A had facebook groups to post idea from improvements that could be made in their restaurants. This forum seemed very beneficial for employees of Chick-fil-A and I imagine this would push improvement further at Toyota, if implemented production workers from different plants could voice opinions on similar manufacturing issues they come across. It is impressive to see how Toyotas model has grown since the 1940’s and with VPs like Kawai Toyota will continue to lead in this industry.

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