The morning started today with a huge breakfast served by the lady of the house, Sumiko. She lavished me with a huge western style breakfast. I, of course, ate way too much. I told her that she has added a pound to me. The thing that put me over the edge weight wise was the melon bread.

Over breakfast, Shinichi and I compared our experiences abroad. He said that he enjoyed working with Americans over Europeans. He found that Europeans tend to be too conservative and had trouble adapting to changing conditions.

Soon it was time to make our way to Toyota, and Shinichi, naturally, gave me a lift. During our drive we discussed his excellent English skills, and he explained that Toyota encouraged him to improve his conversation skills by paying half of the ¥600,000 tuition for a 10 week Berlitz courses. He also has to score a 720, a very high score, to pass.

Our trip also let me admire the built-in GPS system of his car. This thing is really neat. You can not only track where you’re at with a built-in map, but also use it to play the radio or a CD, check the Internet, and play movies. I would like one in my car, but I think I would be a little afraid that someone would rip it off. They’ll have to do some more camouflage work before I’ll get one.

Shinichi pointed out that our route brought us by the Toyota Technical Center, where their research is carried out. It is the home of 12,000 Toyota employees who do nothing but train and plan for the future.

Our first big event of the day was Toyota’s Motomachi plant. This plant has a dynamic production line and produces the Crown, Progres, Brevit, and Blit models of cars. The facility is huge, the size of 35 baseball fields. It employs 700 workers who, according to the current production score board above the line, were trying to make 333 cars today. When we went through they were supposed to have been up to 95 but had currently only produced 92. Each car requires 30,000 parts and 20 hours to build.

The plant had a lot of things you expect to see in an automobile manufacturing plant, parts come in, workers assemble them, and cars go out, but there are components of the plant that are not so obvious that are important.

The first, and probably most widely heard of, is the the JIT/Kanban system first developed here at Toyota. Briefly, it uses a set of card and associated boxes to make sure that only the minimum number of parts are on hand so storage area can be conserved. This system works even better because of the 200 suppliers Toyota uses; 80% are within two hours of the plant reducing response time to changing demand. Similarly, a large number of Toyota’s plants are in this area, 10 plants in this prefecture alone.

One of the things I was impressed with was the way people were valued by Toyota. They want smart and flexible workers, and they also want all workers to be inspectors to ensure quality. The manufacturing line had many robots performing various tasks. Usually, they were used for dangerous tasks or tasks that required the exact same action every time. They realize that their line workers, the people, are a source of great value. This is embodied by the slogan “harmonious interrelation of workers and facilities” which are printed and displayed on large flags within the plant.

Toyota incorporates a system of employee suggestions to improve the line. The employee tells his supervisor what changes should be made and changes are incorporated into the line. This process is called jidoka or intelligent production process. It also improves communication between workers and bosses. One of the examples we saw that was implemented was a parts storage cart mounted on a track parallel to the production line. This saves the employee from having to walk back and forth between the current car and the parts.

The other innovation is andon. It shows where problems are on the line and a color coded system of what the current status of the problem is. Green, white, or no light shows everything is OK, yellow indicates a need for parts, and red means out of parts. There is also a line stop system and call switch. Whenever there is a big problem, a worker or manager can stop the line. A tone sounds to identify the problem and where it was for the manager, so he can come and get the problem resolved.

There were quite a few musical tones coming from the floor. One of the robotic stations that added a part to the car was actually playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” The song was played to warn workers away from all the potentially dangerous action that was going on in the area.

Each car has a large card attached under the hood with instructions on what to do on the mixed production line. The code is a sequence of numbers and letters which tells what goes where and in which order. A car’s location on the line is tracked through a box on top of the cars, which beams the current position of the car to the robots that are assembling it. It was all very impressive.

Toyota has a tour set up in their home office to showcase their latest technologies. Some of the more visually dynamic displays were the ones involving holograms. The holographic car body would disappear to display the various actions of the engines and other systems of the automobiles. They also had several of their latest models on display so we could get in, feel the seats, flip the switches, play with the multimedia GPS systems, and turn all the dials. I’m not a big SUV or hybrid engine fan, but they had a smaller one there that I really liked. Maybe someday I’ll have to get one.

After the showroom, we had lunch with a few Toyota executives for a question and answer session. It was a very interesting time. Some of the questions and other topics that came up were:

What is the current state of hybrid engine technology?
It is still in its infancy. It will not completely replace gasoline-only engines but will be a complement to them.

What do you do about outsourcing issues in the US?
Toyota’s JIT system works best when cars are built where they’re sold. Toyota will still build plants in the US because Americans buy them. For example, a new truck plant was recently built in Texas, a large market for trucks.

What are your current market goals? Does Toyota plan to move up from its 3rd place standing?
Toyota is looking for a 15% global market share, up from 10%, to put it into second place. Automobile technology is not Toyota’s core competency; the production system is what’s important.

Why spend resources on Formula 1 race cars?
This shows that Toyota is an exciting company willing to work on high visibility, high performance cars. This also lets them see how engines perform at high levels so they can learn something new about engine performance.

A few other tidbits that we learned were about the hybrid cars. They are much more intelligent now that they have several years worth of actual on road experience to draw on. One of the executives said that he didn’t like the earlier models, but the new models were redesigned with a smarter power source switching mechanism. There is a completely different hybrid engine in the Prius now.

When Japanese companies hire, they don’t look to see what you’ve done like they do with American Companies. They look for people who work in teams and have challenging spirit.

One of the concepts Toyota has is genchi gemba, or each place has its own tools. There is no common tool box.

One of the executives whom I found most interesting was Ron Haigh, a Canadian expat. He moved here 14 years ago with a degree in English literature. He came to Japan on a lark because at the time, the Canadian economy was in bad shape. He began working as a translator and English instructor for Toyota. Eventually, he worked his way into public relations where he’s been ever since. He joined us for the Denso tour and was just as enthusiastic as we were about finding out what was going on.

We left Toyota with a ton of literature and little presents from Toyota: key chains, pens, notepads, etc. Unlike many of the businesses we’ve toured, we didn’t get any free Toyota car samples.

Then it was off to Denso. Denso is a parts manufacturer for various auto manufacturers not only in Japan but for other countries. They primarily make dashboard parts (called clusters), fuel gauges, speedometers, GPS system, etc. Bar code readers and robots are some of the other products they make. The plant in Takatana employs 2,700 workers.

Like Toyota, this plant tour started off with a display showing everything Denso makes. One of the things that we saw was a precision robotic arm. They had mounted four mechanical pencils with their tips pointing up. The robot arm gripped a pencil lead and quickly put the lead into the tip, removed the lead, moved to the side and quickly moved the lead back into the tip. None of us who viewed it could believe the precision.

The Denso line had many of the similarities of the Toyota line. There was the current board, a problem station board, andon, etc. There were many more robots working here though, 50 in total. The first thing that people were the most intimately involved in was inspection. All parts are inspected by hand and are tested for 8 to 30 minutes to find defects. People also do a lot of the work on combination clusters.

Denso uses the CKD packing process, or complete lock down process, used to package the parts made in this plant destined for other countries. This allows their customers in Asia, who might not be as skilled as the Japanese, to quickly get Denso parts into production in their overseas factories.

The lines eliminate the need for part molds by using lasers to cut the various parts. This gives the line the ability to produce many different things made in one line without changing the mold, a costly process.

A training center is also built into the factory. There are five different classes given: environmental, safety, operations, defect detection, and quality. One of the rooms was a QC room, or quality circle. Our explanation of what they did in there was much like the description of a Saturday Wal-Mart meeting. This and all the other processes are elements of the concept of kaizen, or efficient factory.

Our question and answer session did not go as well here probably because we had a translator between us and the executives. I think that the question that I asked got mangled because the answer I got back didn’t make any sense. I did collect a few interesting facts. Denso tries not to play favorites by not having a keiretsu, a Japanese term for business arrangements similar to a monopoly. They have a reputation for being a fair player to everyone.

In foreign expansion, Denso likes to own 100% of new investments, but they will joint venture with foreign firms if their quality is good.

Dinner was of yaki miku, it kind of reminded me of a cross between a fondue party and indoor grilling. After dinner I mostly talked with the parents of the house. We talked about many things including business, places in America, and gadgets. I also showed them our Halloween party pictures. They also lavished me with presents before leaving. Shinichi, Sumiko, you are always welcome at my house!

Tomorrow, Kirin Beer.