Yesterday, I was able to visit Toyota City as part of the Kaizen Institute tour I am a part of. Now, we weren’t able to take pictures in the Takaota factory that we visited (they build Corollas and a model called the iQ). I want to write about two things out of everything I saw – “andon” and Kaizen. I will write about Kaizen (improvement) in a later post)
Pictured above is part of an animatronic diorama that’s in the Toyota City visitor center. You can see the little figure reaching up to pull an “andon cord” above the line. The andon cord is often described as something that “stops the line” to ensure that defects don’t get passed along.
It’s more accurate to think of it as a way of signaling a problem. The production workers are expected to pull the cord any time there is a problem or if they even suspect that something is a problem.
Here is a short YouTube video I made of a cord pull (it’s just sort of cute to watch):
They pull the cord and a light flashes on an “andon board” It tells the team leader which station has a problem (and music plays). Within seconds, a team leader (having two stripes on his hat) shows up to help. There is one team leader for every eight workers, on average (or 14% of their labor waiting for problems or responding to them). That might seem very inefficient use of labor, but it helps the line be very efficient (while having high quality).
I saw, in the real plant, the team leaders very involved in the process. Our tour had us on a mezzanine level where we could see down onto the line quite well, as opposed to an aisle-way tram tour that you get at the Toyota plant in San Antonio.
Most of the time, the team leader can resolve the problem or verify that it’s not a problem before the line would stop. So, the cords are being pulled almost constantly, but the line rarely stops. We did see it stop once (red light on the andon board).
Our Kaizen Institute guide Brad Schmidt emphasized that Toyota leaders might have to make a choice, in bad situation, of taking a $1 million hit now (stop the line) or a $10 million hit later (if they didn’t stop it). They make the right decision for the long-term. Some problems might be fixable at the end of the line (steering wheel) but some cannot (a wiring harness deep in the guts of the car). So, it seems that they don’t abide by the idea of NEVER passing on a defect to the next station…
In our introductory discussions about Japanese culture, Brad talked about the importance of harmony (“Big Harmony”) in Japanese culture. Because of the overwhelming need for harmony, people often wouldn’t naturally speak up. They might be more willing to cover up a problem than to really fix it. So, the andon cord is a mechanism that makes it easier for people to speak up.
This was a huge “a-ha” moment. People like to talk about Lean and the Toyota Production System methods are somehow perfectly aligned with Japanese culture and that this alignment is a big reason why it works (and would somehow be an excuse for why it wouldn’t work in other countries). Brad said that this speaking up to highlight problems “doesn’t come naturally” to Japanese (he knows this because he was born here and has lived in Japan for 21 years).
Because it “doesn’t come naturally,” they need systems to make it possible.
So, I hope this is an inspiration to people who think “Lean doesn’t come naturally to us in our country.” It doesn’t always come naturally to the Japanese, even.
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