The Coming Auto Industry Battle: Toyota’s People vs. Tesla’s Robots?


Here's an interesting article from Fast Company:

At Toyota, The Automation Is Human-Powered

The sub headline reads:

While the rest of the auto industry increasingly uses robots in manufacturing, Toyota has taken a contrarian stance by accentuating human craftsmanship.

The article talks about how Toyota uses robotic assists to do just that… assist human workers on their assembly line in Kentucky.

That hearkens back to Principle #8 of The Toyota Way:

  • Use only reliable, thoroughly tested technology that serves your people and processes.

Toyota isn't anti-technology, of course. They view it as being supportive of people. Technology serves us, rather than replacing us in all cases. I've been taught that Toyota uses robots and automation in situations where the work would be unsafe for a human, or when quality would be better when done by a robot. Robot can do some work more consistently, but people have flexibility and creativity, which is helpful even in a car factory.

Toyota is not looking to automate for the sake of automating…

“Our automation ratio today is no higher than it was 15 years ago,” Wil James, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Kentucky…”

It's been said that Toyota plants are generally LESS automated than the typical GM plant.

“For at least the last 10 years, robots have been responsible for less than 8% of the work on Toyota's global assembly lines. “Machines are good for repetitive things,” James continued, “but they can't improve their own efficiency or the quality of their work. Only people can.” He added that Toyota has conducted internal studies comparing the time it took people and machines to assemble a car; over and over, human labor won.”

The article also adds:

“Fundamentally, Toyota's production principles were keyed to the notion that people are indispensable, the eyes, ears, and hands on the assembly line-identifying problems, recommending creative fixes, and offering new solutions for enhancing the product or process. Today, that idea seems quaint.”

Quaint, but still powerful.

As I blogged about here, GM famously wasted over $90 billion dollars under CEO Roger Smith and his dream of a “lights-out factory” that wouldn't need any people. Some of that was driven by tension with the UAW, but in my two years at GM (1995 to 1997), the existing culture didn't really respect the production workers. GM didn't view them as a source of brainpower and creativity.

GM's CEO Roger Smith Thought Toyota Had Magic, But This Was the “Secret”

Did Roger Smith have the wrong vision – or was he just ahead of his time??

Fast Company writes about how Tesla and Elon Musk seem to share the robotic-driven future vision, as the article says there is a “nearly fetishistic appreciation of automation” in many companies these days.

“As an aspiration, lean is taking a back seat to lights-out-a manufacturing concept Elon Musk is championing for his Model 3 Tesla plant in which illumination will ultimately not be needed because the factory will be devoid of people…”

By comparison, at Toyota:

“…robots are not the strategic centerpiece, but merely enablers and handmaidens, helping assemblers do their jobs better, stimulating employee innovation and when possible facilitating cost gains.”

The TMMK plant president again extolls the value of people's brains:

“And we challenge our workers to chop a second or more off if they can. If we gain back 55 seconds throughout the factory, we can ultimately eliminate a job and move that worker to another slot where they can begin the innovation process over again. Humans are amazing at finding those stray seconds to remove.”

That sounds like the “kaizen” improvement process. And notice how productivity improvement isn't used to drive layoffs.

I wonder which strategy will win? Or can both Toyota and Tesla make their different manufacturing strategies work?

Could Tesla combine their amazing technology with the brainpower of their employees??

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

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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.


  1. Comment from LinkedIn:

    Kazuyoshi Tsuyukusa
    Toyota views robots as the next main business, therefore diligently develops and improves them. And at Toyota the autonomous driving is being tested by robots, for example in a hospital.

    In this regard Toyota very early started including robots in the production line. What they almost immediately noticed was the ability to innovate going down at a fast pace. Therefore that study of which solution is more effective and efficient.

    At Toyota not being able to understand the process well enough to innovate is unacceptable. This also caused Toyota to give up outsourcing technologies related to, for example, painting booth. They couldn’t talk the same language with the manufacturer and they didn’t like it.

    So, since innovation is the core of Toyota Way, only if AI should turn to be more effective at innovating, there is a possibility that Toyota will fully go with robots. Otherwise the human factor is very important.

    • Another LinkedIn comment:

      Dan Arey
      I think the battle between man and robotics is still a very long way off. Though they have many positive points, their drawbacks are seldom spoken about. Robotics ate tailor made to an operation and therefore totally inflexible, making design changes and NPI’s potentially extremely expensive. They are also very environmentally sensitive, a knock from a forklift and the datum misalignment will wreak havoc. The Japanese load-load lines using automation to carry out work operations as a single operator loads jigs are certainly a way forward with the development of cobots, flexible and inexpensive. Exciting time to be in engineering!

  2. GE experimented with “lights out” in the same era. It ended the same way. Behind a barbed wire fence and over grown weeds.

    Notice the “part stackers” used to automate the storage of way to much inventory. ;-)

    The social piece of this experiment–the labor relations piece–actually stuck. They moved to a multi-skilled labor force with a much more self-directed approach and a high level of employee engagement. When Plant III closed, the organizations moved back into the old facility, but kept their work rules. They went on for years as the most productive piece of the larger, traditional manufacturing organization.

  3. Toyota’s method is the best and will continue to be.

    However, I believe we have reached a turning point where the effectiveness of industrial robots has greatly improved. For several decades it was pretty easy to predict wholesale adoption of the robots will save us mantra would be followed by failure. I still strongly believe Toyota’s method (thoughtful use of robotics to enhance people is the best strategy). But the ease of using robots to succeed in the long term is much enhanced these days.

    Robot first strategies are going to be succeeding quite a bit going forward. Yes those efforts might not be good enough when competing only with companies using the best strategy well (but that will be rare).

    I wrote some about this in a recent blog post

    Essentially I see people today too dismissive of the usefulness of industrial robots. And they have past examples to point to in showing how a large commitment to robot first failed. It isn’t that today robot first is the best strategy but I do believe the real world conditions have improved to make the blanket assumption that such efforts will fail as unwise.

    A big part of this is that while we can simplify the argument to “robot first” or “robots helping people” it really isn’t that simple. There are many reasons why today the conditions are different than they have been. Technological and software improvements are a big part of that. But also there is more thoughtful consideration of the advantages Toyota’s management philosophy brings. Sadly not enough, but still companies are better today at thinking and acting as if their employees have brains than they were 30 years ago. Granted there is still a long way to go, but still progress has been made it seems to me at the macro level.

  4. Great read Mark. As much as I respect Tesla and Musk, it’s scary the direction they are going. “As an aspiration, lean is taking a back seat to lights-out–a manufacturing concept Elon Musk is championing for his Model 3 Tesla plant in which illumination will ultimately not be needed because the factory will be devoid of people.” I wonder what Bob Rush thinks. I was considering asking him, but in a private message of course.

    • With all due respect, I think Elon Musk is more technology minded, and not so much people-minded. the Tesla way COULD work – but will it be better? Time will tell, I suppose.

  5. The auto industry will undergo a massive change with the death of the internal combustion engine, which is plagued by too many moving parts, too many inputs, too much maintenance and way too many subsidies. Driverless transport sized to mass or local routes will likely be the majority of our vehicles, powered by in-pavement induction ribbons as well as in-vehicle batteries. (I’ve seen auto industry forecasts estimating critical mass for this shift between 2025 and 2030, which is about 10 to 15 years faster than the automobile replaced horses, wagons and teamsters.)

    But if you have the resources to own personal pods (rather than just calling them up via app as needed) are you going to be satisfied by a generic, dark factory product? Or are you going to use a custom builder to create a bespoke pod? Remember to add 3D printing to manufacturing options, because it’s not as if skate board dudes will be handcrafting pods from scratch, not when they can download a generic pattern and experiment first. (Evil grin)

    We already face these choices in existing markets; some of us grab a computer from Costco, others build their own rigs (or get the Geek Squad to build a rig). Repeat for any object you possess.


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