My 2nd Tour of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas (San Antonio)


I had the chance to tour the San Antonio Toyota truck plant (otherwise known as TMMTX) back in 2010 (and I blogged about it here and here). I think I got sidetracked and I didn't do more posts about the tour, as I had planned. But, I got to go back yesterday, so I have some new tidbits to share.

In 2010, I went with a group of software people from Austin. This time, I was there with a student and a professor from the Trinity University Masters of Healthcare Administration (MHA) program, doing some prep for a larger group tour.

I have been volunteering a bit with the Trinity program and the local IHI Open School chapter that they participate in (collaborating with local medical students, which I'm very glad to see). We have a group going in May and I am helping provide some pre-tour education and post-tour debriefing, since many (most?) of them have never been in a factory before – good, bad, or ugly. It's interesting to think about touring Toyota without a frame of reference. I have certainly seen what bad factories look like!

The three of us visiting today was a bit of a pilot or dry run for the larger group tour… a bit of PDSA incorporated into my volunteering. It was helpful to see what the MHA student found interesting and relevant from the tour… this will help in our prep for that next visit.

One key point will be helping the students understand that Lean is not about the robots or the technology — that Lean is about the management system, the culture, and the improvement process. The student was astute, as she was (like me) probably spending more time looking at the stuff posted on the walls as the tram drove by instead of looking at the actual assembly process and other work areas.

Visitor Center & Intro Video

The introductory video used an interesting phrase when she said, “400 robots work with our team members.”  In describing the different painting processes (much of which is done by robots), the video said that some of the some of the work involved “detail only the human hand can apply.”

My previous understanding is that Toyota doesn't automate things for cost as a primary goal, but rather for safety or quality. If the work would be unsafe for a person or if the work can be done better by a robot, they will use a robot. They also have many many ergonomic assists for the line workers, where it's basically robots and humans working hand in hand.

“Respect for People” was discussed a lot (as we talked about the other day on this blog) by the guide and those words were literally the first words you saw  in the visitor's center.  Part of “Respect for humanity” is recognizing what types of work people are well suited for and what jobs are good for robots.

The video also talked about how workers weren't laid off in the slow times, as they worked on Kaizen, got training and new skills, or volunteered in the community. As the video said, “Now, that's respect for people!”

Rolling through the Plant

One thing I noticed about touring the plant… I often carry a notebook to scribble notes in (as I did when I toured the Toyota plant in Japan). Today, they encouraged people to not carry anything that might fall out of the tour tram. Of course, we had not bring phones or cameras, but I left my notepad behind. It means I am blogging from memory, but it was nice to just be able to watch and listen… I saw more than if I had been looking at my notepad half the time.

The plant has performance measures, safety crosses, Kaizen improvements, training schedules, team pictures, and all sorts of information posted everywhere. Our tour guide said, “We love visual management here” — and that includes information sharing.  The boards were all labeled “FMDS”  — or “Floor Management  Development  System” (see a quick description of it here from a book). That label seems to illustrate Toyota's focus on developing people… interesting thought that what some people might call “metrics boards” aren't just for managing and improving company performance, but they're also for improving people.

Our tour guide was great, by the way. Until January, she was a production team member from the days the plant opened. She was very proud of her plant and co-workers and it showed. She said, “Who better to give tours than the team members who work the line?” I agree!


The introductory video showed a few examples of “team member kaizens” (or improvements). As the tram rolled through the plant, we could see boards with before-and-after Kaizen summaries, with pictures (basically like the formats we show in our book  Healthcare Kaizen).

After the tour, I asked the guide about how they make time for Kaizen.

She said, for one, they use production downtime to work on a lot of improvements, such as the 2009 recession and other downtime (slow sales periods or supply disruptions) that might occur.

On an ongoing basis, they use (and pay for) overtime to work on Kaizen. Team members need to present their ideas and get approval from their managers, then the team leaders and group leaders work together with people in Kaizen, the guide said.

To those who would say, “We don't have time for Kaizen” — have you considered creating it? If people are working on helpful Kaizens, then there is bound to be a return on that overtime cost (especially if you include the people development that is taking place in the process).

Relevant Points for Hospitals

After the tour, we discussed what's relevant for healthcare people coming through on the tour:

  • The work pace wasn't so frantic looking or stressful. Workers actually had the time in their cycle to smile and wave a bit at the tour tram, but people were clearly working hard… but not too hard.
  • The plant does a great job of supporting the front-line workers — making sure parts are available at the point of use and tools and equipment are properly maintained. Toyota seems to have far more support staff (including a department that helps build things for Kaizen improvements, etc.)
  • The andon cord — when a worker needs help, they have a way to ask for it and get it (a team leader immediately comes over). They aren't left on an island to fend for themselves. There's no shame in reporting a problem or asking for help.
  • The transparency and information sharing about department and plant performance.

It will be interesting to see what the larger healthcare group sees next month… trying to see Toyota through their fresh eyes.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


    • The term “investment” (instead of “spending”) gets abused by politicians, but this is a case where that OT time, properly managed, truly is an investment in your people and your organization.

  1. Hi Mark

    You made several good points we should all keep in mind:

    1. We need to focus on people first, because in reality everything we do in business is ultimately beening done to meet the needs of someone. When we show respect toward the workforce an organization will find it easier to show it to the customers.

    2. Floor Management Development System changes dramatically the implied focus and use of the production data we display in our plants. It helps to keep people focused on getting better as opposed to being able to justify the numbers.

    3. Kaizen efforts are an investment in getting better, thus it is worth while to invest some resources into those efforts.

    4. Problems need to be dealt with quickly so a good system that brings them to attention immediately solves them much faster as well.

    5. Work needs to be fairly designed so that people can do their best not just at the start of a shift but throughout the whole shift.

    6. If people are going to help fix problems they need the information and support to actually do it. It surprises me how many companies demand employees contribute ideas yet supply them no information with which to work, these same emploers always then complain that their staff are lazy and do not care, and make nothing but lame suggestions. The ammount of information people have directly determines how good their ideas and suggestions will be.

  2. Great summary! It’s good to see that overtime is paid for Kaizen. It’s difficult to balance time between sharpening your axe and cutting wood. Calculating available hours is difficult enough this will at least offer some stability.


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