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IT the Toyota way

o Trevor Clarke
22.03.2010 kl 20:30 |

Given all the things that come out of Japan, it’s remarkable and not a little bit bemusing how often it’s the quirky side of life that dominates any discourse on the country. Off the wall fetishes, cosplay kiddies, vacuous variety TV shows, manga, yakuza tales, ninja, games and gadgets are all top of mind as soon as any flutter of the Hinomaru is raised in conversation.


Given all the things that come out of Japan, it's remarkable and not a little bit bemusing how often it's the quirky side of life that dominates any discourse on the country. Off the wall fetishes, cosplay kiddies, vacuous variety TV shows, manga, yakuza tales, ninja, games and gadgets are all top of mind as soon as any flutter of the Hinomaru is raised in conversation.

It's fascinating and titillating conversation fodder but, in many ways, it masks the not insignificant contributions the country has made to the business world. And one export in particular has succeeded in enthralling and influencing the top business leaders across the globe, propelling a once humble region, Aichi Prefecture on the main island of Honshu, into the business world's unforgiving spotlight. It drives considerable innovation in IT within the world's largest automobile manufacturer.

Long-known for its strict approach to quality control, Toyota officially adopted its now famous Toyota Way in 2001. Since the announcement, the Toyota Way's five principles -- Challenge, Kaizen (improvement), Genchi Genbutsu (go and see), Respect and Teamwork -- have been almost universally promoted by C-level executives as a set of home truths manufacturing organisations must adhere to regardless of where they are located. At least, this was the situation before a very recent and acutely embarrassing global recall of Prius models because of a problem with software that controls the antilock braking system (ABS).

Despite the setback, the Just in Time system inherent in the Toyota Way, where activity in the production lines is generated by customer demand and not just by forecasts of growth, is often the source of great pride for the Japanese media, elite and public at large.

What is less well-known, however, is the influence the Toyota Way has had on the company's internal IT systems and, concurrently, the way IT has enabled the five principles to be executed. The production of the new Hybrid Camry at the Altona manufacturing plant in Victoria is a prime example.

Next: The Toyota way at the Altona plant

The Toyota Altona plant manufactured just over 140,000 vehicles -- a combination of Camrys and Aurions -- for the domestic market in 2008. Like all other Toyota plants, the Altona outfit implements the Toyota Production System, which is the practical embodiment of the five principles.

But in the last 12 months the plant has also seen the introduction of the Hybrid Camry.

Toyota Information Systems Division divisional manager, James Scott, says while many of its global systems were developed in Japan (and guarded closely), the plant also rolled out new IT systems with the new model locally.

"The factory simulation tool and motion capture is where we are designing the manufacturing process on computer systems before they even become a manufacturing process," he says. "It is all about looking at how to do things efficiently and how to improve safety, especially with repetitive type injuries and muscular strain.

We used these systems this time around and there was a lot of work there to build the Hybrid Camry as the most efficient and safest way possible.

"We have a system called Factory Simulation Tools, which is kind of like a digital factory. But the motion capture is also using a product called TEBA as a result of an investigation into what Japan is using in North America. The University of Michigan, which specialises in ergonomics, developed it jointly with Toyota.

"We've invested heavily in it due to the potential savings in the manufacturing process and, more importantly, in improving safety."

TEBA -- the Toyota Ergonomic Burden Assessment tool -- aims to estimate how working on the production line can affect physical health. By taking video of work processes and measuring the different forces involved the various stakeholders can analyse the data to look for ways to improve; in other words, following the Kaizen ethos.

"We have a zero harm president's goal and there is a quite a bit of effort put into, not just new models, but the continual building of existing models to have zero harm for all our employees," Scott explains.

Next: Agile development

The IT department is also building a custom dealer management system to help dealers introduce the principles of the Toyota Way into their own workplaces. It's looking internally at its own processes; instead of the waterfall approach to development -- where a lot of planning and building of solutions is done up front and then given to the customer -- Toyota has adopted an agile process.

This has let the IT department move into smaller development cycles with far greater customer input. This, Scott says, results in a continual release of components of systems and ends up being "shorter, cheaper, quicker and usually much more supported by the customer as it achieves what they want a lot more easily".

"As an IT division, we are trying to introduce the Toyota production principles into our development process. So we are now introducing our production methodologies," Scott says.

"We are trying to link the best production process there is and customise it for IT system development. We have done a couple of projects and they are probably the best IT projects this division has ever done. They had great business sponsorship and feedback from our business customers."

Next: The planning lesson

Much of the Toyota Way comes down to common sense and making a commitment to always trying to do better. If organisations can define what it is they do, standardise their operations, eliminate waste and improve, it's highly likely they will post better results.

For Scott, who started his role in January 2007, getting to the stage where the IT department could legitimately say it was executing actions to accomplish the Toyota Way took planning.

"My number one goal since taking the job on was to put in place a proper IT planning process that would drive not only our budget submissions but our labor planning requirements for the next three to five years. That then drives your whole IT system implementation plan.

"It will identify the best IT systems for the right business process. It will quantify the benefits the organisation will receive, either tangibly or intangibly, and it will make sure IT is investing the right money in the right things."

Add in the well-documented success the Toyota Way has brought the company and it's easy to see why organisations -- especially manufacturers -- around the world continue to try and emulate Toyota. Now that's hardly quirky and not a bad export by anyone's standards. The challenge for Toyota now is to convince everyone its still relevant given the Prius debacle.

Next: The Toyota setup

  • A considerable number of custom systems on global basis
  • Cisco for networking
  • Shares its server business between IBM and Dell on an Intel base
  • SAP ERP platform with Oracle database is housed on an IBM P570, which has just been upgraded from a P590
  • Windows PC environment
  • Novell for file and print
  • Virtualised using VMware
  • Java for internal software development
  • Outsourced its data centre to Fujitsu Australia -- production data centre in Melbourne and a disaster recovery data centre in Sydney
  • NEC for network and comms
  • IBM for desktop support
  • 4571 employees
  • 87 IT staff and about 30 contractors
Keywords: Software  IT Management  Business Issues  
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