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Toyota is Admired for Good Reason… But About Those Rotating Job Shifts…

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There's much to admire about Toyota and even regular readers of this blog might throw the “fanboy” label at me.

Toyota is admired by many and they were again named to the Fortune magazine “world's most admired companies” list, being the tops in the auto industry.

“To determine the best-regarded companies in 52 industries, Korn Ferryasked executives, directors, and analysts to rate enterprises in their own industry on nine criteria, from investment value and quality of management and products to social responsibility and ability to attract talent. A company's score must rank in the top half of its industry survey to be listed.”

Toyota is Admired (and Doing Many Things Right)

Toyota is an appealing company to work for. I recently saw this article about having 100,000 applications for 1,000 jobs in Plano at the new North American headquarters.

In the relocation, a high percentage of employees (67%) chose to move to Texas:

“Lentz said this week that he didn't know exactly how many moved from California, versus Kentucky or New York, but of about 4,200 employees nationwide who were asked, he said, 2,800 agreed.”

Texas is attractive (I love living here) but it's a lot to ask to have someone uproot themselves and their families, even with relocation benefits. So, clearly, Toyota is doing a lot of things right, from a talent attraction and retention standpoint if they were able to get that many people to move.

But that left 1,000 jobs to fill (400 came from other parts of Toyota).

Toyota looked for cultural fit:

‘Lentz said that, above all, he wanted the new hires to fit in with the company's “fairly dominant culture,” where teamwork, respect and a desire to continue learning are at the heart of a company where people build lifelong careers.

“I can teach people the car business,” he said. “What I can't teach is people to have that same philosophy at the core.

A respectful workplace is one that's going to, all other things being equal, retain employees over time.

Many hospitals use Lean and Kaizen mindsets and methods to engage employees and reduce voluntary turnover rates. That very directly saves money (since replacing staff can be very costly) and reducing turnover leads to other improvements in quality, patient satisfaction, and patient safety.

Our Recent Toyota Tour

As I previewed in a recent post, I encouraged our KaiNexus team to visit the Toyota plant in San Antonio in January.

I guess I did so because I'm a “fanboy.”

I'll also be visiting a Toyota plant in Japan soon (you can still join our trip).

I've enjoyed previous Toyota visits and our team learned a lot and was inspired in many ways, including:

  • The choreography of the support systems and material flow
  • The focus on safety and the consistent exhibition of safety behaviors by employees
  • The andon cord system
  • The sheer complexity of a modern automotive plant

As much as I admire Toyota, I am quick to admit that they are not perfect. No company is perfect… nor is any individual). We're all human and a company is a group of humans.

I have admired Toyota's ability to reflect and improve as they face problems and focus on the long-term perspective.

Concerns About Rotating Shifts

During the San Antonio tour, we were told about the production team members being on rotating schedules. The day shift normally starts at 6 am and would run until 3:15 pm, I believe. Team members work a job for two hours, get a ten-minute break, and then switch to a different job… between the rotation and breaks, they get 45 minutes for lunch. Job rotation is a good thing, for many reasons.

The Toyota tour guide pointed out that break areas are intentionally all throughout the plant, so team members don't have to walk far to sit and rest, maximizing their break time. That's good for the team members, but the guide pointed out that being fresh is good for preventing safety problems and for quality.

These days, since demand for pickup trucks is high, there's two hours of “mandatory overtime” each weekday before the next shift comes in at 6 pm. They sometimes have to work a Saturday, which gets communicated in advance, they said.

She also added:

The team members work two weeks on the day shift and then switch to the night shift for two weeks, and then the pattern repeats.

Even as a fanboy (and not as any sort of expert on circadian rhythms), I was wondering how tough it would be to switch back and forth from days to nights, back and forth. When I worked in manufacturing companies, including GM, somebody was always day shift or always afternoons, without switching back and forth. I don't know what the norm is at other auto plants these days (please post a comment below, if you do know).

Is it difficult for Toyota to find people to always be on night shift? Working nights works for some people – due to their body clocks, child care situations, etc. (the same is true in healthcare).

The rotating shifts are fair in a way… everybody does it and Toyota says they made it clear to applicants that this is what they're signing up for. But what if somebody underestimates how hard it would be to switch back and forth?

The Toyota guide said the rotating shifts can actually benefit team members because “they can make doctors appointments or do things that need to get done during the day.” When somebody asked the guide about the rotating shifts during the Q&A period, the guide said the company gives recommendations to team members about how to best prepare for the switch in shifts.

She also said that working on first shift half of the time gives everybody equal opportunity to get the exposure that could lead to promotions. I guess managers and engineers don't have the same shift rotations. In my life, I've known some people who LOVE to work second shift because they get “left alone” by management and engineers (and I say that as an engineer with an MBA… I get it… and I hear the same things in healthcare, too).

During our debrief discussion back at the KaiNexus office, one of our colleagues brought up the rotating shifts as a real negative. He pointed to online reviews posted about working at Toyota and, while there are many positives, nearly everybody said the rotating shifts were annoying if not dangerous or a reason to quit.

In Toyota speak, there might be a “big vague concern” that we share about the rotating shifts. But, the next step would be to investigate to see if there's really a problem and what, specifically, that problem is.

The only public data points we have are some employee comments on websites like glassdoor.com (which I've filtered, in this link, to display comments only about San Antonio jobs):

The Pros:

Many of the positives are repeated by multiple employees. I've blogged before about their “no layoff” commitment, including here.

  • Great Pay, Great Benefits, Awesome People. It's a lot of great personal & emotional reciprocation you get from the people you work with
  • Great benefits, Job stability (many many comments on pay and benefits)
  • A position with Toyota means work stability. Toyota keeps it's employees during hard times. There is never a lay-off
  • Good company values. Great work environment.
  • The l skills developed will make you better. Advancement opportunities.
  • Great company!! Learned so much from the Toyota Way and Toyota Production System.
  • Company cares about people and has a very methodical mindset on improving output while balancing individual lives outside of work.

The Cons:

The overriding trend in the comments is the shift rotation, with comments like:

  • The Work Schedule Is Hard To Live With. The rotating shifts are not easy to work with especially if you're family oriented or have other responsibilities.
  • Rotating shifts every two weeks is not good for your health.
  • Bi-weekly rotating shifts and no flexibility
  • Rotating shifts
  • Work life balance [they] preach is not there. The work schedule is bad. You will either be on sleep aids or sleep disorder or depressed
  • Rotating shift every two weeks with maximum production overtime. Work life balance was bad, this is only reason I resigned. They do so many things right but fail in a big way with every two week rotation.
  • Rotation is difficult No work life balance
  • Rotating schedule, sleep pattern, treat employees like people not machines… Get rid of rotating shifts.
  • “Causing many to quit” – Rotating schedule. Cant go to college because flipping to days and nights so quickly 4 times in 3 weeks. Never feel awake while at work because of schedule. Safety concern.
  • This job require a great deal of sacrifice on your part, with little to nothing in return. Their core principles can be easily ignored when it comes to making more profit.
  • Can't complain about rotation due to fact that we knew about this before hand BUT it is not easy on body or mind as i tend to forget what day it is when working nights.
    • When study was made of what NOT to eat when working nights so one does not feel sleepy Pasta & Turkey were 2 of the items….so why allow the cafeteria to sell those items at all when on nights.
  • TMMTX adheres to an absolutely brutal shift work schedule where you work two weeks days then switch to two weeks nights. Your body and soul takes a beating because you never get used to the change.
  • work schedule is the worst I have ever worked in 30 years

There are more comments, but that's pretty representative of the people on that site.

In the surveys, they are also some scattered (and surprising) comments about Group Leaders not listening, a lack of respect, management not living up to stated values, etc. But, one could chalk that up to there always being some unhappy people in any workplace. But, there I go sounding like a “fanboy.”

One employee's advice to management:

“Get back to Toyota Roots, TPS, TBP, RESPECT, TEAMWORK, THE TOYOTA WAY!! LEAD! Hold people accountable.”

By my estimate, about two-thirds of the Glassdoor reviews had a complaint or comment about the rotating work schedule. Again, the population of people who post on Glassdoor isn't necessarily a scientific sample that's perfectly representative of the total employee population, but it makes you wonder.

Online surveys aren't necessarily a random and scientific sample. Toyota has about 3000 employees and who knows how many former employees. If you find 70 comments on a website, you don't know for sure if those people are actually employees, I guess, and you don't know if their attitudes are representative of the broader workforce. Generally, the happiest or the crankiest employees will fill out a survey like that.

If there's widespread dissatisfaction about this at the plant, I hope leaders are aware of it and listening. Or, if the complaints are from a small minority of employees, they might shrug it off as “the work schedule isn't a good fit for everybody.” But, I'd still wonder about the safety and health concerns…

I'm sure Toyota has weighed the pros and cons of this rotating schedule. If turnover rates got to be too high, would they reconsider and make a change? I wonder what the PDSA cycle looks like?

Does “respect for people” mean keeping everyone happy or does it mean being upfront about expectations (even if it's not a good fit for every individual) and then being fair and consistent?

I wonder what the safety data looks like with rotating shifts vs. consistent shifts?

This paper says the optimal shift rotation schedule for 24-hour emergency management workers is different than Toyota's:

“The unique physiological demands of rotational shift work and night shift work have the potential to negatively impact decisionmaking ability.

A responsible, evidence-based approach to scheduling applies the principles of circadian physiology, as well as unique individual physiologies and preferences.

Optimal scheduling would use a clockwise (morning-afternoon-night) rotational schedule: limiting night shifts to blocks of 3, limiting shift duration to 8 hours, and allowing 3 days of recuperation after night shifts.

In general, clockwise shift rotations should be used (day-evening-night). Ideally, a rotational schedule should include no more than 3 night shifts in a block, with 3 days of recuperation after the night shift work. In general, 8-hour shifts are preferable to 12-hour shifts. Circadian physiology suggests that morning shifts should begin no earlier than 8:00 am for the physiological best fit to circadian rhythmicity.

There are some shift rotation plans that provide 24/7 coverage using four teams to cover three daily shifts, but that's not the solution Toyota is looking for.

Do you know of other research or better research for manufacturing settings?

Have you seen shift rotation patterns that work better? What do you think?

Please post a comment and join the discussion. Subscribe to get notified about posts daily or weekly.

Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent book is the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus. He is currently writing his next book, tentatively titled Measures of Success.

8 Comments
  1. Mark Graban says

    LinkedIn Comments

    Jack Parsons (formerly of Honda):
    “Honda tried rotating shifts in their Greensburg Indiana plant and it did not go so well for the obvious health and safety reasons. Management to their credit listened to the complaints of the workers and finally did away with the rotating shifts.” [It lasted several years.]

    Brad Shelton:
    “TMMK in Kentucky do not rotate. You work days or nights as a temp, based on need, and when you get hired in you go to nights. Seniority dictates when you get to come to days. As stated, there are pros and cons to both. Being on nights can last several years, your most experienced workers are on days, but when promotions come up some do not apply because the new team leaders or group leaders go back to nights and the experienced rotate back to days. Management for my company (tier one Toyota supplier) has assistant managers on nights and managers on days. We are like Kentucky and either days or nights without rotation. Which is better? I’m not sure. I see benefits of both.

    By the way Mark, our company has 4 plants in Japan and they rotate EVERY WEEK! NUTS!”

    1. Mark Graban says

      Bruce Andersen:

      “Saturn in TN rotated three shifts every week. People I knew that worked there said it aged them and they didn’t like it. It was a union environment and even though the majority (I heard) didn’t like the rotation the majority wanted to be on days so the union insisted on keeping it. I don’t know what they do now.

      I personally think it is bad for safety, health, and quality of life but those are only my opinions after working in and around automotive for almost 50 years.”

      1. Bill Herrmann says

        I would agree, Mark. My initial reaction is that it must be difficult to adjust to a different shift every couple of weeks. If you’re working in an automotive plant in which the day shift ends at 3:15, you typically have an hour or two to still conduct personal business after work before businesses close.

        As difficult as this might seem, there are several automotive plants that now follow a 3-crew/2-shift scenario, in which the A Crew works four 10-hour day shifts Monday thru Thursday, the B Crew works four 10-hour night shifts Tuesday thru Friday, and then the C Crew works two 10-hour day shifts Friday and Saturday and then shifts to two 10-hour night shifts on Sunday and Monday nights. While they don’t rotate people from crew to crew every couple of weeks, I have to believe that working that C Crew really messes with your circadian rhythms.

  2. John Hunter says

    Thanks for another good post. It points out that while Toyota does many things very well they have opportunities to improve. And I am sure they agree they have a huge number of things to improve.

    I agree, this rotating shifts seems like something important to try and improve. One of the things that happens in many organizations is that working on this are going to make lots of people mad is often avoided. This rotating shift work seems like something like that.

    Even if you worked on improving it, likely during those PDSA cycles many people would be annoyed. And if you were working on it, you could get blamed, you could be tarnished as someone people didn’t like and didn’t appreciate. If, on the other hand, no one is making significant efforts to improve even if people are annoyed it is at some amorphous policy and usually doesn’t stick to 1 person. If the dis-satisfaction does accumulate toward 1 person (say the plant manager) that person then often will push through to deal with it – or assign someone to deal with it and stay on them to make sure they do the difficult work (even if doing so will make that person’s life much more difficult).

    Now I would hope Toyota is better managed than that and doesn’t shy away from important work just because the people that would take the lead have strong reasons to avoid doing so.

    There are often so many things to improve that it isn’t too hard to shift the focus away from something that no one wants to take on. Sometimes though things are so important they must be taken on. Usually those would be more direct and short term obvious problems. Systemic problems that cause great damage but in a less visible way (such as rotating job shifts) are less likely to be addressed.

    Coping with this issue (of avoiding unpleasant, systemic and long term rather than acute problems) is one of the things that separates great corporate culture from decent or bad corporate culture.

    If there are fairly obvious or fairly easy improvement those would likely be taken care of. There are, rarely, but still sometimes, instances where the vocal or politically powerful who would lose out in a fairly obvious improvement will prevent action.

    I am pretty sure Toyota doesn’t have fairly easy improvements on this issue that they must realize is important that they are just not getting to. I am a bit less confident that Toyota isn’t avoiding trying to find solutions using a PDSA type effort because it would be really hard and risky work for whoever takes it on. Also Toyota can try to rely on the good will built up through their many efforts to expect enough employees to say that they will accept suffering for the good of the everyone.

    I am not convinced there are not ways to improve the situation. And I am pretty confident it is important enough to try. And I believe (though I might be wrong) with a concerted effort of knowledgable people improvements that would make a big difference in the quality of life could be achieved. I am not so certain those people involved in leading the effort would be seen in great lights. People are much more likely to remember negative consequences to them personally even if they gain much more than they lost overall. And certainly if they lost only a little but overall the gains were much bigger many will hold onto feelings that they were harmed by those that took action.

  3. Tom Gormley says

    LOL, I think I may have become a Mark Graban fan boy, some here at Franciscan Children’s might agree.

    Seriously, thanks for a really rich post, rich in consequences and challenge, and opportunity. I would be very interested to read any response to this from Toyota in San Antonio. I’m hopeful they’re aware of the staff reaction and are amidst PDSA cycles considering what to do. At Franciscan our Nursing staff are mostly on 12-hour shifts, 3 shifts per week is the norm. I’ve honestly not heard a lot complaints but I’m also not sure I’m in the best position to hear honest feedback.

    This reminds me of a recent public discourse in Boston from the public school system which announced they would soon change school hours with one aim being to reduce road traffic congestion due to bus traffic. With all schools starting at similar times the traffic and congestion was maximized, so they wanted to try starting elementary age school an hour earlier, the view being that high school kids need to sleep in later (my kids are out of school, but would have agreed). Maybe the littler ones just don’t complain as loudly? In the end, Boston canceled this experiment over parental feedback — impacts not only on their kids, but on their own parental schedules including their jobs and other responsibilities (and maybe their own sleep?). Perhaps Boston rightly viewed this feedback as coming from their “customers”, vs. at Toyota San Antonio it sounds as if they’re not paying as much attention to their employees. It doesn’t sound respectful, but again I would hope and even assume that Toyota is aware of this and that most employees would feel Toyota is working toward a better solution.

    I’d also assume that any real impacts would show up in their staff retention and hiring metrics, and if those don’t show a reduction in retention or other worsening, then they can probably live with the comments on Glassdoor.

    1. Mark Graban says

      I think the staff retention issue is important, but there’s also the possible impact on health and safety that should be considered in as scientific of a way as possible.

      Let’s say these are GREAT jobs for the San Antonio area. Pay is really good. Job security is fantastic. Maybe people say in the job even though they’re unhappy with the shift rotation. Maybe they stay even if they think it’s not great for their health.

      I think that’s something else to consider.

      In healthcare, there are studies that show 12-hour shifts aren’t the safest thing (errors increase in the last two hours), let alone longer shifts and other sleep-deprived conditions for residents and some physicians. I’ve heard that 12-hour shifts are a staff preference (commuting to work just 3 days instead of 4), but what about patient safety?? Hospitals say “patient safety is always our top priority.” But is it?

  4. Mike Gardner says

    Hi Mark,

    I worked for a man at one time who used to remark that “opinions are not data, no matter how many of them you collect.” It would be useful to know some facts about those workers who posted negative things about the shift changes. Were they high-seniority people who felt they should have been given 100% day shifts? Were they married or single, children or no, young, middle aged, or older? I have never had to work “swing” shifts, but I know people who have and they did not all hate it. When I was in ops management I had 3rd shift folks who couldn’t stay awake at work but would not transfer to 2nd shift due to their need, (desire) to take the children to school, etc. If I was a low-seniority employee I think I would love the opportunity to work half my time on 1st shift, but if I were a long-service person–probably not.

  5. Mark Graban says

    From my notes, visiting the Toyota Tsutsumi Plant in Japan, for comparison:

    2 shifts:
    o 6:25 to 3:15
    o 4:10 to 1:00 am

    o OT up to 45 minutes
    o 10 min break (get them every 2 hours)
    o More breaks after lunch every 90 minutes (due to fatigue)

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