Comparing Toyota’s Latest Ramp Up to Tesla’s


The first thing that prompted me to write this post is an interesting article about Toyota and their Georgetown, Kentucky plant that's known as TMMK (via Ward's Auto):

New Lexus Big Test for Toyota's Georgetown Plant and Its New Manager

The “launch” includes a new product and a new product architecture (read a Toyota blog post about this):

“With the new model, the ES moves to the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform that underpins the Toyota Camry and Avalon models built on a separate line at the Georgetown plant.”

It would be interesting to compare the pace of ramp up here with the troubled ramp up efforts for the new Model 3 line at Tesla.

Output of Camry, begun in July, is now at full speed, while the new Avalon is just in its third week of production and should reach peak volume within another six weeks.

Will Tesla get Model 3 to “full speed” within the 10 months or so that it took Toyota to get Camry up to full speed?

Nothing is ever easy, as Susan Elkington (Toyota's first female plant manager) says:

“We've had some bumps in the road, so we need to continue to make kaizens (ongoing process refinements) and improve our efficiency.”

You might guess Toyota, at this point, could design and launch a process that's nearly perfect? Well, it sounds like there are many many Kaizens (which doesn't surprise me):

“Ninety percent of our parts changed, 90% of our processes changed,” she says. “You become the most efficient…when you've been doing that same process for a long period of time. (But) since we've launched, our team members have come up with hundreds and thousands of kaizens, how we can save a step here, a cent here, and we've been implementing those over the last (few months).”

That's a classic Kaizen strategy… engage everybody in many many small improvements. Compare that to news stories about Tesla, where Elon Musk, as CEO, seems to be diving into problem solving in ways that makes me wonder why the CEO has to be doing that.

Tesla's Ramp Up Challenges

A recent example was Musk talking about problems with what called a “flufferbot.” Read about it here in Slate. One example of excessive automation (which Musk said was his mistake), was a robot that was designed to install a “fiberglass mat that was designed to insulate noise from the battery pack:”

“We had these fiberglass mats on the top of the battery pack. They're basically fluff. So we tried to automate the placement and bonding of fluff to the top of the battery pack. Which is ridiculous.

So we had this weird flufferbot. Which was really an incredibly difficult machine to make work. Machines are not good at picking up pieces of fluff. Human hands are way better at doing that. So we had a super-complicated machine. Using a vision system to try to put a piece of fluff on a battery pack. …

… The line kept breaking down because Flufferbot would frequently just fail to pick up the fluff. Or put it in a random location.”

Not only did Tesla remove the automation, they (crediting “Musk and his team”) questioned whether the “fluff” was even necessary.

“The company tested a car both with and without the fiberglass battery insulation and found “no change in the noise in the cabin.” They concluded that the part was unnecessary and did away with the flufferbot.”

Rather than just second guess their (Musk's?) automation decision, I do think it's an interesting question of why Musk is being a hero instead of having built a team that can address these issues on their own. Musk is bragging about (being a martyr?) about sleeping in the factory and not having time to go home for showers. Is this how an effective CEO operates?

Maybe while he's there, Musk should be following up with workers who have recovered from injuries, as he committed to do? See my recent blog post on that.

I bet the Toyota plant manager (I'd guarantee it) isn't sleeping at the factory or skipping showers. She's the leader of a team, which is different than being the leader who does it all.

Back to Toyota

Toyota continually trains employees on the Toyota Production System. Elkington said 40% of their 8,000 employees have less than five years of experience, due to retirements and expansion.

“There's a lot of education that needs to still happen and to really embrace the Toyota Production System and Lexus mindset,” says Elkington, who began her Toyota career with the startup of the Princeton, IN, assembly plant that launched truck production in 1999. “It's not something that happens overnight. It takes years of training.”

TPS isn't automatic. They can't take it for granted that new people will absorb the culture.

And note how she says it doesn't happen overnight. It's not a week of training or even less than that. There's a commitment that's required to develop people. It's good for the people you're developing and it's good for the organization.

Or, you can just have the CEO sleep in the factory forever.

Elon Musk vs. Jack Dorsey

I really do feel bad for Elon Musk that he has to do that… or that he hasn't been able to create a team that can allow him to be a more strategic CEO.

Musk seems to love being in the middle of this “production hell” (instead of creating a team that could avoid or minimize the duration and depths of such hell).

Compare his approach to another Silicon Valley leader, Jack Dorsey, of Twitter, as I blogged about:

Says @Jack Dorsey: It's an “Organizational Failure” if the CEO Has to Make a Decision

Dorsey said:

“…if I have to make a decision, we have an organizational failure.”

What do you think?

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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. It seems that Musk either does not know how to build a team or he thinks that teams are overrated or irrelevant. That lack of ability or limited view is not uncommon among entrepreneurs.

    • Yes. It’s also not uncommon for company founders to be replaced by somebody who is more suited to be a big company CEO.

      I don’t criticize Tesla because I want them to fail. I want them to be successful, so it’s frustrating to see behaviors that don’t seem to contribute to success.

  2. All this begs the question of why Space X is successful. That didn’t happen without teams, and there’s linkage missing somewhere.

    • Define “successful,” though. Both Tesla and SpaceX have impressive technological accomplishments.

      Is SpaceX on a path to being a sustainably profitable company for the long-term?

  3. They are on time, it seems, and don’t crash, anymore. It just seems there’s a different discipline at Space X that’s not apparent with Tesla.

  4. Hi All,

    In keeping with Jack Dorsey’s POV, a better solution/approach to the prevailing “LEADERSHIP” and “DECISION-MAKING” issues (i.e., they both tend to be more dysfunctional than functional in nature) resided in transforming the prevailing/traditional leadership modus operandi. How might occur, you wonder? Well, I can’t say it’s easy, but I can say it’s fairly simple to do. The biggest challenge lies in a traditional leader’s ability to GIVE CONTROL as opposed to their more customary way of THINKING AND BEHAVING; that is… TAKING CONTROL (ala Musk).

    Here’s how it’s done…


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