genchi genbutsu – that’s Toyota for “user research”
There’s tons of good stuff on business/manufacturing/processes/marketing/company culture/innovation in the fantastic article about Toyota from the Sunday NYT magazine. I’ve picked just a bit to share here.
Toyota’s chief engineers consider it their responsibility to begin a design (or a redesign) by going out and seeing for themselves – the term within Toyota is genchi genbutsu – what customers want in a car or a truck and how any current versions come up short. This quest can sometimes seem Arthurian, with chief engineers leading lonely and gallant expeditions in an attempt to figure out how to beat the competition. Most extreme, perhaps, was the task Yuji Yokoya set for himself when he was asked to redesign the Sienna minivan. He decided he would drive the Sienna (and other minivans) in every American state, every Canadian province and most of Mexico. Yokoya at one point decided to visit a tiny and remote Canadian town, Rankin Inlet, in Nunavut, near the Arctic Circle. He flew there in a small plane, borrowed a minivan from a Rankin Inlet taxi driver and drove around for a few minutes (there were very few roads). The point of all this to and fro, Jeff Liker says, was to test different vans – on ice, in wind, on highways and city streets – and make Toyota’s superior. Curiously, even when his three-year, 53,000-mile journey was finished, Yokoya could not stop. One person at Toyota told me he bumped into him at a hotel in the middle of Death Valley, Calif., after the new Sienna came out in 2004. Apparently, Yokoya wanted to see how his redesigned van was handling in the desert.
The way a farmer uses a truck is different from the way a construction worker does; preferences in Texas (for two-wheel drive) differ from those in Montana (for four-wheel drive). Truck drivers have diverse needs in terms of horsepower and torque, since they carry different payloads on different terrain. They also have variable needs when it comes to cab size (seating between two and five people) and fuel economy (depending on the length of a commute). In August 2002, Obu and his team began visiting different regions of the U.S.; they went to logging camps, horse farms, factories and construction sites to meet with truck owners. By asking them face to face about their needs, Obu and Schrage sought to understand preferences for towing capacity and power; by silently observing them at work, they learned things about the ideal placement of the gear shifter, for instance, or that the door handle and radio knobs should be extra large, because pickup owners often wear work gloves all day. When the team discerned that the pickup has now evolved into a kind of mobile office for many contractors, the engineers sought to create a space for a laptop and hanging files next to the driver. Finally, they made archaeological visits to truck graveyards in Michigan, where they poked around the rusting hulks of pickups and saw what parts had lasted. With so many retired trucks in one place, they also gained a better sense of how trucks had evolved over the past 30 years – becoming larger, more varied, more luxurious – and where they might go next.
Obu’s team, which drew on hundreds of engineers, ultimately produced a pickup model with 31 variations that include engines, wheelbases and cabs of different sizes. Design engineers, however, cannot simply create the best truck they can; they need to create the best truck that can be built in a big factory. In other words, Tundra’s design engineers had to confer with Tundra’s manufacturing engineers at every step of the way to create a truck – or 31 trucks, really – that could be assembled efficiently and systematically.