Education Commentary

What Schools Can Learn From Toyota of America

By Mike Schmoker — May 13, 1992 12 min read

Just in time for Christmas, General Motors made an announcement that simply stunned Americans who had grown numb to a more than year-long dose of bad economic news: That G.M. was poised to lay off 74,000 workers by 1995, its profits and market share in a state of free fall, even as its product, the cars and trucks that roll off the assembly line, may be the best ever.

It was hard not to reflect then on a visit I had made last spring to Toyota of America in Georgetown, Ky., north of Lexington. I went as an educator looking to learn how to promote improvement in a decentralized workplace. Our district’s move to site-based management was in full swing and my superintendent, Rick Wilson, thought a well-run Japanese plant might have some lessons for us.

I got far more than I anticipated, though I’m still not sure it has all that much to do with site-based management. What I saw is full of implications not only for education, but for American managers who too long have underestimated people and their potential in the workplace.

An ex-school teacher now working as a public-relations director at the Toyota plant informed me that the workforce there was 95 percent American. She spoke enthusiastically about Toyota’s “3,500 secrets of success’’ and about how the 3,500 team members (not “employees’’) “loved Mr. Cho’'--the company president, Fujio Cho.

A promotional video showed men and women running slo-mo onto the shop floor, hardhats atop smiling faces, their images alternating with football players taking the field.

It’s a little corny. Too corny, certainly, for General Motors. I grew up in Detroit and still know people who work in the auto industry (last I heard). My uncle, who works at a G.M. transmission plant, tells me that they “tried the team stuff for a while, kind of tongue-in-cheek’’ and how profit-sharing and incentives written into contract agreements were never realized.

My uncle also told me of how G.M. employees do maybe four hours of work in a typical eight-hour shift. That drinking starts long before punching out is well-documented in books like Ben Hamper’s Rivethead, published last summer, a critique that reveals unbelievable irresponsibility and excesses on the G.M. assembly line. Union-management relations are said to be so poor that employees are virtually secure from pressure for better performance. Any incompetence this side of crime is pretty safe. Like schools, G.M. may lay people off, but they almost never fire anyone.

The interesting thing is that Toyota doesn’t fire anyone either. They have never had to and there is no union at the Georgetown plant, which has been called the “best plant in America’’ by several distinguished sources including J.D. Power and Associates.

Even more interesting than Toyota’s formal presentation is what you find out by talking to “team members’’ in bars and restaurants far away from the factory. Georgetown is in a dry county. Employees gather at a lounge just on the other side of the county line. I purposely transferred to the Best Western hotel in which “Todd’s,’' a popular lounge, is located. It gave me a chance to speak with numerous employees I met there throughout two evenings. All I heard, over and again, was how they really did love their work, how they love Mr. Cho, how he never blames anyone for problems, never singles out an individual, and does more listening than talking. All this, while insisting on--and getting--quality and improvement.

Mr. Cho consistently reminds his people that he and his executive staff would take deep pay cuts before laying off a single employee. He puts this in writing at regular intervals, or when, as happened during the war in the Persian Gulf, there were rumors of layoffs due to limited demand for cars.

This is an impressive promise; executives at the largest Japanese firms make an average of 10 times what the lowest-paid line worker earns; American executives earn 50 times as much or more. In the mahogany-panelled executive suites at G.M., the motto seems to be “advancement has its privileges.’' I had to find Mr. Cho’s desk in a vast, nondescript expanse of other desks on the second floor. He was wearing the gray sweatshirt and khakis that is the optional uniform at Toyota. Anyone may visit him without an appointment. Where G.M. executives may have chauffeured limos and heated garages, at Toyota, a line worker told me, executives had better “arrive early and wear tennis shoes’’ because there are no reserved parking spaces.

Toyota has created a remarkably democratic culture. The joke at the plant is that T.M.M. (Toyota Motor Manufacturing) stands for “Too Many Meetings.’' It is both less and more than a joke, revealing in fact the deepest, most profound truth to be discovered at Toyota of America--a truth full of implications for any organization looking to improve itself. It is that regard for each individual’s contribution to quality and improvement is essential. Everything at Toyota is built around this belief, and the evidence points to the wisdom of it. Employees feel that they make real contributions in a workplace in which they are a needed team member rather than an expendable part. This, above all, explains why Toyota, as Fortune magazine recently put it, “keeps getting better and better and better.’'

It’s no stretch to see how this applies to any organization, including a school, that seeks to improve itself. Strong, visible, participatory management that promotes teamwork, eliminates fear, and includes regular opportunities for problem-centered interaction and follow-up can’t help but improve performance. In most schools, interaction is characteristically bland and procedural; real instructional problems are seldom discussed. Teamwork and collegiality are practically unheard of in the traditional school setting. “Evaluation,’' which might promise to promote a constructive dialog, too easily deteriorates into a ritual class observation. Confronting people with the results of their efforts may be crucial, but doing it on an individual basis is awkward and threatening.

It is also a difficult and ambiguous affair because of the numerous factors affecting student learning. For these reasons, evaluation has become a polite, if near-meaningless matter between a beleaguered principal and a nervous teacher. Research has finally told us what many of us suspected all along: That conventional evaluation, the kind the overwhelming majority of American teachers undergo, does not have any measurable impact on the quality of student learning. In most cases, it is a waste of time.

Evaluation at Toyota is always of teams, and with reference to criteria the team members have agreed upon using data they themselves designate and generate. Employees thrive on the opportunity to do their own quality control on tasks they are the rightful and recognized experts in. “Give me the data’’ is the operative expression in every conversation and it is always with reference to specific, team-chosen problems and challenges. In one department, efficiency was promoted through, among other things, a redesigned hook that transferred fenders from one station to another. The hook was refined by a team of five whose tests subsequently revealed that the fenders were falling off the conveyor 3 percent less as a result of the innovation.

It is no quantum leap from this to having teachers generate their own numbers or percentages of students who are capable of writing high-quality essays, or mastering mathematical concepts, or completing interdisciplinary projects that reveal real growth. School districts around the country are discovering that it is only against such measures that self-scrutiny of methods and improvements pays off.

Last year, 90 percent of employees at Toyota submitted at least one “kaizen,’' a Japanese word meaning a suggestion for a small improvement in efficiency, quality, or innovation. They usually submit them in pairs or groups; Toyota’s compensation scale reflects the company’s clear preference that people develop and refine ideas together.

That this many employees contributed ideas in just one year is interesting enough. What is more interesting is that more than 90 percent of these ideas were implemented. Detroit is competing with people who are constantly looking for and finding, not hundreds, but thousands of ways to streamline the manufacturing process, save money, and add quality each year.

It is because they are given the opportunity and incentive to talk, think, and monitor their own progress toward goals they themselves set, and which management never discards, but only discusses with employees on equal terms. The result is the most productive auto manufacturing plant in America.

Though some employees receive rich rewards for their kaizens (one made $5,000 for calculating the cost-savings for doing laundry in-house), the average award is $25, an amount my uncle says G.M. employees wouldn’t pick up off the floor.

Money isn’t everything at Toyota. Average pay is $14 an hour. Quality, job security, and a sense of contribution are just as important. There are really no quality-control experts at Toyota; everyone does it. Which may be why “Give me the data’’ is the operative expression. Not just quality, but improvement is the order of the day, and there has to be quantifiable evidence of it: percentages, numbers, lists of legitimate advantages. And everything is decided by teams (of five), groups (of 30), and larger units of as many as 500 people who are given unparalleled amounts of time to talk, brainstorm, refine, and then finally establish targets and means of measuring progress. These are then discussed and evaluated at subsequent meetings in a context that is less competitive than communal in its regard for a company employees rightly regard as their own. Everyone I spoke with confirmed this.

In such a setting, improvement is inevitable.

This explains why the employees like, truly like, their work. An ex-jockey I had a drink with told me that on Sunday evenings he honestly looks forward to work the next day, how he likes to “hit the ground running on Monday morning.’' I spoke with many employees privately; I couldn’t tease a complaint out of any of them.

Some of this has been written about; little of it has been absorbed, believed, and implemented in American schools or businesses. In education, I’m seeing that there is, in isolated corners, a history of emphasis on giving teachers time to collaborate regularly and compare results of new methods. A highly respected educational journal did an issue on vastly improved schools and districts. I read the articles twice and noticed the second time through that each of them spoke of such things as “continuing instructional dialogue,’' of meetings where “teachers planned the next week of instruction based on the results of the current week,’' of how such talk “refines the innovation.’' One school started to “routinize problem-scanning as well as solution generation ... and follow-up.’' These points were made, but not emphasized. The innovation and the results were featured at the expense of what really accounts for success: the team process of fostering and evaluating innovation regularly and relentlessly. This is obviously the key to improving schools--and corporations. How many organizations are building their strategies around these concepts?

There is some hope. Business people in my state recently spent $1,000 each to see a 92-year old statistician named W. Edwards Deming speak in Phoenix. After World War II, and after having his theories rejected in America, Mr. Deming went on to transform Japan into an industrial behemoth. A 1990 book by Mary Walton, Deming Management at Work, celebrates the success several U.S. companies that have implemented his ideas have had.

The best way to explain the Deming method is through his “P.D.C.A. cycle.’' That’s Plan, Do, Check, Act. It may be all we need to know about improvement. First you plan--in large ways and small--for quality or efficiency. Then you do what you planned. No one has trouble with the first two steps. The next two are more challenging, though they are pure common sense. Having done or tried what was planned, you must then check--using the most precise indicators you can devise--on the degree to which your efforts succeeded or failed. Finally, and just as importantly, you act on what your data tell you, which brings you right back to the planning stage of a never-ending examination of every task, every aspect of production and quality, including the quality of your measurements.

Such a cycle requires an investment of time and talk, as well as humility. Management has to let go of the bankrupt premise that it has nothing to learn from the people who are closest to the work. Along with this, we must instill the belief that nothing is ever finally finished or beyond improvement. General Motors’s rejection of Mr. Demings’ ideas in the profits-filled post-war years typifies our culture’s only-vague acceptance of the notion that everything can be made better, whether it is lightbulbs, cars, or lesson plans.

In Japan. W. Edwards Deming is, next to General Douglas Macarthur, the most revered American figure. The country’s most coveted industrial award is the annual Deming Prize. Yet Mr. Deming’s recommendations that management “eliminate fear,’' enhance job security, and focus not on quantity but quality have, until lately, fallen on deaf ears in this country.

In the right circumstances, people can become addicted to quality. We want, and probably need, a palpable sense of quality and a belief that we are getting better at what we do, whether we’re dealing in widgets or students, to be fulfilled.

Like American industry, schools are doing a better job than 10 years ago. But as in corporate America, the real problem is that we tend to think we are doing the best we can with what we have. We aren’t. The assumption at Toyota is that there is nowhere to go but up. We should remember that before we give up on teacher-led innovation, before we give up on another group of children because they are “at risk’’ due to “circumstances beyond our control.’' We should remember it before we decide the best solution is to lay off 24,000 more employees, thus sending waves of distrust and fear throughout companies whose only hope is loyalty, the collective contribution of individual hearts as well as hands. We have nothing to lose, except the opportunity to become, in every way, “better and better and better.’'

A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 1992 edition of Education Week as What Schools Can Learn From Toyota of America