A few weeks ago I wrote about a gemba walk at Toyota Motor Kyushu (TMK) alongside Mark Reich. In that post I discussed karakuri, a method of simplified engineering to make kaizen more accessible and challenging for Toyota operators. It was one of several surprises that upended my expectations heading into what JD Power calls the best automotive plant in the world. Rather than nifty robots whizzing around doing lots of work, we saw the exact opposite: humans tinkering with simple tools to continuously improve the work.
Perhaps the greatest surprise was not something we saw, but something we heard. Or, I should say, did not hear: noise.
TMK has established noise reduction as a corporate objective. Initially, I thought this bizarre. Noise is fundamental to a factory environment. Machines hum, drills whir, carts rumble, and people shuffle. It’s like asking how to eliminate heat from a kitchen or dirt from a farm. There is a rhythm to an assembly line. The conveyor line is a conductor pacing the operators. Their instruments are tools and parts all coming together to make a car. Noise is a factory’s music.
Why did Toyota establish noise as a problem to solve?
Japan, like many industrialized nations, has an ageing population. Actually, it's not just ageing, it's declining. In 2016, the population fell by just over 300,000 people. Projections estimate that by 2065 Japan will shrink 30% from 126 million to 88 million. Within half a century, Japan may lose 38 million people. It's worth writing again - within half a century, Japan may lose 38 million people.
The Japanese labor market is tight, particularly for young workers. While TMK has cleverly designed work that is ergonomically safe, assembling a car is still physically taxing. Team members swiftly slip in and out of car shells, pace back and forth along their fixed work zones, twist their bodies to reach tight spaces, and dexterously handle small and large parts all day long. Every 72 seconds they repeat a cycle of physically demanding work. It's a job for young people. But Japan doesn't have many young people.
In the long-run, Toyota must be asking, "Who is going to make these cars?" In the short-run, Toyota is asking, "How do we attract and retain people to make these cars?"
A countermeasure at TMK has been to create a better work environment. TMK already had excellent safety, productivity, and worker engagement. What put a bullseye on noise? From a quality perspective, operators can hear their work better. There are certain clicks and pops that are or are not meant to happen in assembly. By reducing ambient noise, workers could hear these audible indicators more clearly. Additionally, factories increasingly compete with more peaceful work environments - for example, offices. Attracting capable young workers requires new demands on the factory environment. So, noise is a new kind of muda. And Toyota is very serious about eliminating it. They have even set a target decibel level! I just wish I could remember it….
Standing along the assembly line at Plant 2, Mark Reich and I could comfortably carry on a conversation without raising our voices. Most noise was generated by tuggers delivering parts to the line. And we were in the loud plant! Inside the quiet plant - Plant 1 - TMK has gone so far as to eliminate andon that project noise. Instead, team leaders have an earpiece connected to the andon so only they hear the ringing.
Noise is under siege not just at TMK assembly but in its supply chain. TMK is challenging suppliers to hit its target decibel level! At one supplier, a plant director showed us a machine that had recently undergone noise kaizen. Apparently, on a recent walk through the plant, a TMK engineer halted at the machine and asked, "Why is this machine so loud? It's not supposed to be this loud." Under normal circumstances, a reasonable answer would be, "It's loud because it's a machine. Machines make noise."
But these are not normal circumstances. Toyota faces a major external challenge (tightening labor market) and has addressed it by creating a major internal challenge (reducing factory noise).
The plant director was pleased to tell us that the machine now meets the target decibel level.
Back to the long-run question: “who is going to make these cars?” It is interesting that Toyota is still asking "who". A rapidly declining population and already tight labor market are superb incentives to consider a "what". Yet Toyota continues to consider people - rather than robots - the best option to productively build cars. How long can this strategy last with a 38 million population decline not just on the horizon but in motion?
That Toyota is first willing to squeeze decibels out of its factories before handing the work off to robots suggests they’ll try as long as they possibly can.