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How Toyota is Squeezing Innovation Out of Hard Times

Sales are down sharply and factories are idle, but Toyota's workers are still working—looking for ways to solve problems they don't have time to solve when they are making one car every 27 seconds in normal times.

We’ve all got work-related stuff in a little pile waiting for that moment when we have time to stop, think and pay attention — the magazine articles to tackle, connections to pursue, ideas to expand on, skills to improve, all those things that might blossom into something great, but that are not urgent.

At Toyota, they’ve found the time to pay attention to those things. It’s called the economic downturn.

Toyota has a long-standing commitment not to layoff fulltime U.S. production workers; but it also is suffering a dramatic slowing of car sales in the U.S. because American consumers are (wisely) deciding now is not a great time to splurge on a new car.

Toyota’s U.S. sales in September were down one-third from a year ago, a stunning fall for a company that manufactures cars just-in-time.

So at Toyota’s idle U.S. factories, according to this recent Wall Street Journal story, workers are still working — they are looking for ways to solve problems they don’t have time to solve when they are making one car every 27 seconds in normal times. They are learning new skills and brushing up on skills that working the assembly line corrodes.

What the WSJ story makes vividly clear is a miniature of the story I did two years ago about how Toyota infuses innovation into its everyday work.

Toyota’s quality, its consistency, its history of making cars better and better, is not a quirk or an accident. It’s at the core of the company’s philosophy, and it’s the key job of it’s assembly line workers.

So even when the factory is idle, the hands and brains at Toyota are not. The company is getting ready for the moment when the demand for cars comes roaring back. Toyota is preparing the next wave of innovation — right there in the factory floor, using workers that U.S. companies (including Toyota’s competitors) would layoff, or just send home with pay.

The most creative companies appreciate that it’s never a bad time to innovate — even in the worst of times.

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