TOYOTA CITY — The first step in teaching the secrets of karakuri is breaking out the toys.
Replicas of antique tea-serving dolls — windup automatons invented some 200 years ago to scoot across tatami mat floors and deliver hot cups to bemused samurai lords — are just some of the simple, mechanical wonders on hand for workers to tinker with at Toyota's training center.
The original tea dolls had no metal parts; they used whale baleen as springs.
"We use these toys to hook people's interest," said Takeshi Tsuchiya, Toyota Motor Corp.'s group manager for plant maintenance in Japan, which oversees the sprawling Karakuri Studio.
The studio, a kind of karakuri college, was created in 2007 by Takeshi Uchiyamada, the Toyota chairman better known for his work as the chief engineer on the original Prius hybrid. The school is housed at Toyota's sprawling Global Production Center here in the automaker's hometown.
Toyota workers come here from Japan and virtually any other country where Toyota has a factory. They take a karakuri crash course and then return to their home plants to implement what they've learned and further seed the kaizen mentality of continuous improvement.
Thanks to efforts like these, Toyota has amassed a karakuri database of some 2,000 low-cost, power-saving shortcuts that aim to eliminate waste and uneven workflow while improving safety, quality, productivity or maintenance.
Homework begins with a seemingly simple task: Work in teams to devise an apparatus that uses no outside power but can transport a ball within a prescribed parameter, conveying it up and down in a circular pattern. No two solutions are the same. The gadgets use wooden beams, strips of aluminum, pulleys, levers, string, whatever. The key is creative, low-cost inventiveness.
"This training is amazing," said Pablo Chierri, a mechanical engineer visiting from Toyota's subsidiary in Argentina.
"There are a lot of things here we can implement back in our country."
Part of the course is sitting in class, learning the mind tricks necessary for shop floor fixes. The rest is spent creating.
Tatsuya Koyama, a maintenance worker from Toyota's Kinuura transmission plant in Japan, spent 16 hours working with his team on their ball-conveyance gadget.
"Even though the outcome is the same, there are many ways to reach the same solution," Koyama said. "It's about how to combine the basic concepts with local conditions."