A Toyota Motor Corp. worker kneels down to check a Lexus at the Japanese automaker's flagship production line for luxury Lexus models in Tahara, central Japan.

AP Photo/Koji Sasahara

The Kaizen Philosophy in the Auto Industry

Kaizen philosophy and the auto industry intersect in Japan in the 1950s, but it's a philosophy and management style that continues to be practiced today -- most notably by Toyota.

After World War II, Taiichi Ohno was charged with setting up machine shops for Toyota. He came to the United States to study Henry Ford's assembly lines. Ohno saw that while the Ford assembly lines worked, there was a lot of waste in the process. Some parts of the factory would have too much inventory, while others would have too little. Also, there wasn't a clean and efficient way to check for quality and the assembly line workers weren't asked to provide solutions to problems. Ohno wasn't impressed.

On the other hand, Ohno was very impressed by the American supermarkets he visited. He saw how the stores only ordered what they needed and kept their inventories low to respond to consumer demand.

Using what he saw in the States, Ohno applied the principles of Kaizen to Japanese auto manufacturing and came up with several programs, like just-in-time inventory, for example. The just-in-time system is where inventory is delivered based on what's necessary right at that moment, not what's available. Kaizen continues to reform the company's practices by charging every employee -- from the CEO to the janitor -- with continuously improving quality. Rather than waiting for problems to occur, Toyota employees are expected to continually seek improvements in efficiency and quality. If factory workers see a potential problem, they can actually stop work to find a solution, rather than letting the problem grow as production continues. As part of Kaizen, Toyota has quality circles, which are groups of workers who know how the company works, and whose job it is to find areas for improvement, either through cutting waste, changing a process or improving a product.

And, for the most part, Kaizen seems to be working for Toyota. And while it may have lost some sales due to the economic downturn, for most consumers, the Toyota name continues to be synonymous with quality and reliability. That's something that owners -- especially those that practice Kaizen car maintenance at home -- are likely to appreciate.

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