The president of the carmaker's US manufacturing tells what it took to turn Toyota workers into Lexus workers, from rebuilding cars to mastering origami the hard way.
Wil James joined Toyota in 1987, “when the walls were literally going up” at its manufacturing facility in Georgetown, Ky. “I distinctly remember walking through mud pits on the plant site,” he says. The first Camry was supposed to roll off the line in 7 months. “I thought to myself, there’s absolutely no way that’s going to happen.”
But it did, and 28 years later, those memories flooded back as James, the president of Toyota Manufacturing USA, watched new Lexus ES 350s roll off the line at Georgetown’s just-built $360 million second plant. That facility also had a fast turnaround time: James had 30 months to assemble a 750-person team and train them to meet the high standards of a luxury brand, producing 50,000 cars annually.
James talked about the particular workforce demands of the Lexus at the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminar on Monday in Traverse City, Mich.
Building the plant and setting up the equipment wasn’t as challenging as preparing the team members, said James. Though 75% of the Lexus workers came from the Camry plant and were thoroughly versed in the Toyota Production System (some had been working on the Camry line since Day 1), the Lexus required longer stretches spent on each process and more sensory tasks and more expertise.
“We were transitioning team members who for 25 years or so had built high-volume cars and were accustomed to completing their process in 55 seconds, to an assembly line that moves at a pace of about 4 ½ minutes per process,” said James. They had to learn to use their senses—especially touch—“to detect a flaw that is as minute as a thread of human hair.”
Lexus plant workers in Japan follow the principles of Takumi, or master craftsman. The master craftsman’s expertise is so valued, so respected, that when you walk into a Lexus plant in Japan, you’ll find framed photos of these individuals on the wall,” said James.
“We had thirty months to get our workers into a mindset that matched our counterparts in Japan, who had been perfecting it for 30 years.”
That also required a shift in workers’ transfer opportunities, which in Kentucky “had been wide open,” said James, in keeping with Toyota’s philosophy that as long as you have a good system in place, you can train anyone on a process. Team members with assembly experience, for example, could transfer to paint or to body weld if they were interested.
But as the higher standards of a luxury vehicle required more specialized skills, the opportunities narrowed. Toyota Kentucky employees were transferred only to Lexus areas where their skill sets matched; this approach worked so well that Toyota applied it across the entire Kentucky operation.
The staff went through a million and a half training hours, much of it with Lexus trainers brought in from Japan, before the car went online.
Some of the training was sensory. Worker learned to run their hands around parts to detect millimeter gaps. And to prevent extra parts from cluttering up their work stations, they practiced blindly reaching into a box and correctly pulling out three different-sized bolts at a time, so they could pull out exactly what they needed for each task by feel. They learned to feel for the resistance of a plug that could compromise a vehicle’s electronic systems.
“We let them rely on sight, sound and touch to know it’s correct,” said James. “Those are things that equipment can’t do for you.”
There was a fair amount of book-learning too. The first few months of training were just spent studying. Before production started, an soon-to-be assembly area looked like a college classroom.
“We had rows of tables and chairs; team members with their noses in books. With the noise level of a library,” said James. “Before those team members ever touched a car, they were required to learn, then recite from memory, the information held in those pages. Which on average was 90 steps per process.”
Production team members also took field trips to local dealerships to understand what salespeople and customers expected from the product and the brand. “That helped shape the design of our plant,” said James.
To get an even better feel for the car, the assembly team purchased 25 ES 350s, took them apart, “and rebuilt them piece by piece,” said James.
Rooted in kodawari—the Japanese principle that every tiny detail matters--occasionally, the training was almost poetic. To challenge his dexterity, the plant’s master stitcher was required to master origami with his non-dominant hand.
James jested that it took “a good amount of good old Kentucky bourbon,” along with hard work and planning to get the plant up and running. But investing in people was utmost. “Our single most accurate and valuable tool on our production continues to be the highly skilled, well-trained team member.”