Toyota's widely imitated rulebook on how to build cars includes a lot of Japanese words that English-speaking auto executives have adopted over the years.
Kaizen. Muda. Jidoka.
Figure those words out and live them, and product quality will improve, costs will decline, and profits will rise.
But last week, company President Akio Toyoda mourned out loud that the coronavirus pandemic is playing the devil with one of Toyota's guiding principles: genchi genbutsu.
Genchi genbutsu roughly translates to "actual place, actual thing." Philosophically, it means you can't sit in your engineering office to figure out why customers say the front passenger floor covering keeps getting wet. You have to rise up out of your chair, get on an airplane, go to the factory, crawl into the passenger seat and look at the thing. You have to talk to the assembly worker face-to-face to learn why the air duct doesn't fit correctly.
It all works well — except when the planet is locked down.
Maybe videoconferences will suffice, Toyoda said last week, acknowledging that people are not free to go see much of anything right now.
But they won't. And nobody knows that better than the president of Toyota.
When a tornado blew apart BorgWarner's very critical transfer case plant in rural South Carolina last month, genchi genbutsu was not an option. BorgWarner's Detroit-based management was under Michigan's shelter-in-place orders. They couldn't easily go and see for themselves, though eventually, they managed to anyway.
The plant — which supplies Toyota — made an amazing rapid recovery from the destruction. But to get that done, BorgWarner did what it had to do, moving people from other locations to the actual place, actual thing to help.
The industry is in a tough spot at this moment and is trying to endure. And it will.
But seriously — don't expect anybody to surrender their time-tested procedures and philosophies to do so.