Toyota: Unconventional Methods, Extraordinary Results

I hadn’t heard the song in more than a decade but the moment it came on I was back in my daughter’s nursery, placing her in her crib for a nap.  She loved that song, a lullaby that my wife and I would play for her by yanking a string on the back of her favorite stuffed animal.  Nothing fancy, just one of those short, simple tunes you’d hear if you cranked an old music box.

But I was far from my daughter’s nursery.  I was in Toyota North America’s Texas-based pickup truck factory.  This factory is massive: 2,000 acre campus, 2 million square feet, nearly 2,000 employees, and cranking out 200,000 vehicles/year.  (That’s about one pickup truck per minute, 24/7/365!)

In addition to being massive, it’s impeccable.  If Disney were in the auto manufacturing business, this is what their plant would look like.  Crisp lighting that rivals that you’d find in a Tiffany’s jewelry display.  Floors that are spotless.  Even bathrooms that Mickey himself probably cleaned.

But lullaby music?  There we were, surrounded by welding machines and grown men in hard hats, and on kicks my baby daughter’s crib music.

“Excuse me,” I asked, “What’s with the music?”

“Oh, yes!” replied one of Toyota’s manufacturing engineers, “That’s our signal that we’ve encountered unplanned downtime.”

UNPLANNED DOWNTIME?!?!  “Holy crap,” I thought, “All hands on deck!  Man your battle stations!  DEFCON One!”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last five years traveling North America’s industrial sector, it’s that unplanned downtime is a factory’s worst enemy.  There’s no faster way to lose profits and threaten worker safety than to have production lines come to a screeching halt. 

Yet here we were, in a factory where downtime costs can exceed $50,000 a minute, and everyone around me remained calm, kept smiling, and enjoyed a little lullaby music.  And as quickly as the song came on, it turned off and the production line kicked back into gear.

Now, let’s contrast that with how I’ve witnessed other industrial facilities respond to an unplanned downtime incident: Blaring sirens, angry bosses, scrambling workers, and the guilty party tossed into a pit of alligators.  (OK, maybe no alligators but you get my point.)

Human instinct is to up the tempo when things don’t go as planned.  Lost on your way to a meeting?  We drive faster and more recklessly.  Behind on production goals?  We ignore our fatigue and muscle through. 

But what would happen if, in that shit-hits-fan moment, we actually did the opposite?  What if instead of hitting the panic button we pulled that string on the back of my daughter’s stuffed animal? 

Toyota remains a world class company for many reasons, but that lullaby incident was a more poignant illustration of their unique approach than anything else I’ve witnessed at their company.  As a leader, how do you set the tone for calm amidst the storm?

Take a page from the Toyota playbook: Next time you or your team is tempted to hit the panic button, reach for that little stuffed animal with a string on its back.  Not only will you save yourself undue stress but you might get a nice nap out of the deal, too.