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Toyota Chooses Humans Over Robots to Boost Quality & Efficiency

April 14, 2014

Bloomberg recently reported that there is a significant change happening in Toyota factories throughout Japan. The ‘gods’ are coming back.

‘Gods’ in this sense are the Kami-sama, or experienced craftsmen. Mitsuru Kawai, who has been with Toyota for 50 years, recounted his early days at the Japanese automaker: “When I was a novice, experienced masters used to be called gods, and they could make anything.”

Kawai is the man in charge of bringing back the ‘gods’ in Toyota’s production plants. He was personally chosen by Chief Executive Akio Toyoda to oversee programs that advance craftsmanship in the automaker’s facilities. Through the programs, the workers will learn the basics of metalcraft, allowing them to make parts like the crankshaft from scratch.

In a time when automation is considered as most crucial in the auto manufacturing process, the world’s biggest automaker is taking a step back and letting humans take over the jobs previously held by robots. In fact, 100 workstations that used to be manned by machines are now designated for the manual training of workers.

The reason for the change reflects Toyoda’s desire to shift the company’s focus from growth to quality. Jeff Liker, who had written several books on the auto giant, said that the CEO “felt Toyota got big-company disease and was too busy getting product out.”

“What Akio Toyoda feared the company lost when it was growing so fast was the time to struggle and learn,” he also said.

It seems like Toyoda is determined to afford the company an opportunity to struggle and learn again. Toyota will not be expanding anytime soon—the automaker has decided not to build new car plants in the next three years. The time will be spent teaching workers new manual skills and allowing them to develop these skills over time.

“We need to become more solid and get back to basics, to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them,” said Kawai. “To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine,” he added.

Toyoda clearly believes that workers need to know how to make the car parts themselves to be able to make better cars. After all, he learned the same way. The 57-year-old CEO worked in Toyota’s Operations Management Consulting Division, established by Taiichi Ono in 1970. Ono is known as the father of the Toyota Production System, which is renowned in the auto industry for both quality and efficiency. New employees in the division like Toyoda were given three months to complete a project, but without the help of superiors. He had to learn the hard way to get things right.

Educating employees does more than improve car quality, though. Paying attention to craftsmanship also enables Toyota to improve its car building processes. By going back to the manual route, Toyota is afforded the chance to reduce waste and costs, as well as shorten its production lines.

The automaker was able to get rid of 10 percent of material-related waste by fabricating crankshafts at its Honsha plant. It has reduced expenses by making chassis components. Meanwhile, it has also succeeded in shortening the production line’s length by 96 percent.

The comeback of the ‘gods’ in Japan is expected to help Toyota prevent future recall crises in future. The Japanese carmaker agreed last month to pay a $1.2 billion penalty to settle a criminal charge linked to its 2009-2010 unintended acceleration recall.

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