Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Can You "Toyota" It? Lessons from the Factory Floor

One hallmark of a creative organization is the ability to look outside your usual realm.  Guest blogger Trevor Jones, Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Kentucky Historical Society, shares his team's learning from the world of automotive manufacturing.  Read this, and consider where your team could go to learn something new:  a plant, a restaurant, a farm, or ?  It's probably right next door, wherever you are.

Have you ever worked on a project and noticed a problem but you were afraid to speak out? Perhaps you were junior team member, or the change would have been expensive, or the boss clearly didn’t want to hear about any flaws.  I’ve been there, and it stinks. Feeling unable to speak out leaves you frustrated and angry and also leaves the organization with a poor project. However, if you worked for Toyota, you would have been expected to speak out and propose a solution.

The Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky is massive. They churn out 500,000 cars a year and you can tour the plant for free. The operation is a well-oiled machine where team members rotate jobs every few hours to avoid fatigue and boredom. As you move through the plant, a worker occasionally notices a problem and pulls a cord running above the production line. This action triggers a pleasant little song and the line stops. A team leader or supervisor runs over to address the issue and then the line starts again. The idea is that workers are expected to find small problems and fix them before they become big ones. Toyota’s entire corporate culture is built around the idea that quality is everyone’s job. Employees are not only encouraged to solve problems, but also discover ways to make the operation more efficient. If you work for Toyota and want to streamline a process, they’ll give you the time to build what they call a “cardboard and duct tape” version to see if it works. This is a low cost prototype to see if your idea actually has merit. The prototype is tested and evaluated, and if it’s successful it becomes standard practice and the person who generated the idea is rewarded with a cash bonus.
If you’re a management nerd like me you can read any of a dozen books about how Toyota developed this corporate culture and how other companies have tried to copy it. 

But, the real question is how does Toyota apply to the museum world?  The point is not to simply try to copy Toyota’s methods, but rather to use their culture as a springboard to get your staff to think about museum work in new ways. In their book Leadership Matters, Anne Ackerson and Joan Baldwin write that one of the dangerous myths of museum leadership is that “we are the source of our own best ideas.”  Looking outside our industry exposes us to new ways of thinking. My example is Toyota because they have a successful corporate culture and their plant is nearly in our backyard. A couple of years ago I convinced our leadership team to take the entire staff on plant tour so they could see the operation. This was followed by followed by lunch and a meeting with Toyota’s leadership to discuss their corporate culture. 

I’d studied Toyota, and my hope was their concept of “stopping the line” when a problem was spotted would become part of our museum’s culture. Our visit to the plant helped a little with that, but looking back at it a couple of years later, speaking up was not the concept that stuck. Instead, our employees latched onto Toyota’s concept of testing ideas with “cardboard and duct tape.” Our museum culture had been focused on producing polished “professional” products. As an accredited institution, the common belief was that we had to do things perfectly and that sharing something that looked unfinished or cheap was a professional affront.  We produced some really attractive things, but our culture created huge barriers to evaluation. Once you decide that a product is “perfect,” it becomes very hard to change it based on visitor feedback! Touring Toyota changed this view. We started doing “cardboard and duct tape” versions of exhibits and programs. We created draft labels and put them up with pushpins, and created freeform programs that could change easily based on visitor feedback. Our employees began using “Toyota” as a verb – when evaluating a proposal, people would say “That could be a good idea, but let’s Toyota it and see if it works.” 

As with cars, your mileage may vary, but looking outside your industry is a good place to find the catalyst to inspire your teams. Find a company that does something well, expose your staff to those ideas, encourage change and then reward the behaviors you want to see. Museums can rarely give out cash bonuses for good ideas like Toyota can, but we can single people out for praise, reward success with parties (our team likes cupcakes) and encourage people to constantly point out mistakes and suggest new ideas. It seems simple, but the folks at Toyota will tell you that there’s a lot of thought that goes into creating an organization where people feel that everyone has a responsibility to make things better. 

Images:  top, from;  center, temporary prototype labels courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society, and bottom, Captain America cardboard template via  And just a note, you can't believe what googling cardboard and duct tape turns up!

No comments: