What the Toyota Way Can Teach Manufacturers About Employee Engagement

October 12, 2017

Manufacturers, ask yourselves: Are your employees engaged?

Probably not, according to a 2017 Gallup poll that finds just 25 percent of manufacturing workers are. One possible cause? The traditional manufacturing management approach to put processes ahead of people.

In an industry that struggles with retaining talent, many manufacturing workers say their employers don’t value their jobs, encourage professional development or recognize good work.

Engaged workers drive continuous improvement. They need you to invest in them if you want to keep them.

If you’re looking to grow through better processes and people, here’s one company’s success story.

Toyota Leads the Way

Toyota has remained a global manufacturing force for decades.

Back in 2001, the automaker developed a set of 14 guiding values, which it described as a system to provide tools for its workers to continually improve their work. Toyota says these values stress long-term objectives, improve results, add value by developing people and drive organizational learning by continuously solving root problems.

University of Michigan professor Jeffrey Liker highlighted the principles in his 2004 book, “The Toyota Way.”

  • Base management decisions on a long-term philosophy, at the expense of short-term goals.
  • Create a continuous process flow to bring problems to the surface.
  • Build a culture that stops to fix problems and get quality right the first time.
  • Standardized tasks and processes are the foundation for continuous improvement and employee empowerment.
  • Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy and teach it to others.
  • Develop exceptional people and teams who follow your company’s philosophy.
  • Become a learning organization through relentless reflection and continuous improvement.

The Problem With Laurels

It can be tempting to rest on your laurels. But failing to strive for continuous improvement in your products, processes and people can quickly cause you to fall behind your competitors. The most successful manufacturers advance by continually investing in their processes and people with actions that value long-term commitment.

Toyota aims to create a culture that not only makes employees feel valued but also encourages professional development and a long-term relationship between the company and workers.

Consider the company’s decision to uproot thousands of people from California to move to its new headquarters in Plano, Texas. Cheryl Hughes, chief human resources officer at Toyota Motor North America, told Automotive News the announcement was made in 2014 — two years early — to give time for employees to make decisions.

“This was really about Toyota’s culture and about the fact that respect for people and continuous improvement are pillars of the Toyota Way,” Hughes said.

While the employee reaction was initially negative, the company eventually relocated 4,200 employees by the time the new HQ opened. During those two years, Toyota also offered workers expense-paid tours and incentives to consider moving.

People Come First

Some companies have tried to mimic Toyota’s processes, but few have created the culture required to support it. One of the biggest failings? Companies continue to improve their processes and strategies without fully developing their people.

Mike Hoseus, executive director of the Center for Quality People and Organizations, told Planet Lean that manufacturers need to broaden their definition of HR. How should they view it? As a strategic partner to turn people into problem solvers and teach them to apply lean strategies to their own work.

Hoseus believes the key to Toyota’s philosophy is not only continuous improvement but respect for people.

“Too many practitioners focus on the former and tend to neglect the latter, which is when the house normally collapses. The two really must go hand in hand,” Hoseus said.

The Toyota Way shows manufacturers can adjust their management approach and use their most valuable assets — their people — to drive operational improvements.