How Lessons From Toyota’s Production Line Will Help Efficiently Rebuild New Orleans

Toyota plans to teach its well-honed assembly line techniques to community organizations like the St. Bernard Project, a New Orleans recovery initiative. Will it make them better?

St. Bernard project workers


The Japanese are legendary for their efficiency, and Toyota is no exception. A few decades ago, the company realized that it could create goodwill among more haphazard manufacturing operations in North America by sharing its efficiency secrets. So in 1992, the Toyota Production System Support Center (TSSC), an organization that shares the techniques of the ultra-streamlined Toyota Production System with Toyota-related suppliers and other companies, was born. Now Toyota plans to teach its efficiency gospel to community organizations like the St. Bernard Project, a New Orleans recovery initiative. Will it work?

The Toyota Production System operates using a number of principles. Among them: waste reduction (not
having a lot of extra inventory, just-in-time delivery of parts),
letting ideas bubble up from the bottom (supervisors are there to listen to what people are saying), and allowing anybody who
works on the production line to stop it at any time if there’s an issue.

The principles sound specific to manufacturing–but they actually have a lot of relevance to nonprofit operations. In one of Toyota’s nonprofit pilot projects, the company worked with the Community Kitchen and Food Pantry in Harlem. Before Toyota stepped in, the food pantry had lines spanning down the block. Patrons generally had to wait more than an hour for service.

“It’s not too different from a production line. There are often a lot of wasted steps, and often a lot of wasted material–in this case, food,” says Jim Wiseman, Group VP at Toyota. “The first thing you do is you talk to the folks putting the plates
together and figure out how can we streamline this and evaluate where the waste and bottlenecks are occurring.”

Toyota figured out how to reduce food waste, for example, by looking at what items of food were thrown away the most (everyone received the same plate). The food pantry was then able to customize its plates, and in the end, Toyota was able to get the wait time down to 18 minutes.

That project took a few months, but other pilot programs have been completed in a matter of weeks. Toyota generally sticks three to 10 employees on a project–enough to get the job done, but not so many that the voices of nonprofit staffers are drowned out.


Next up: helping the St. Bernard Project more efficiently rebuild homes ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. The organization has already rebuilt over 380 homes, but it has a largely unskilled workforce made up of war veterans, civilian volunteers, and AmeriCorps volunteers. Toyota will step in to help the organization speed up rebuilding efforts by 20% and employ three times as many war veterans as it currently does.

Toyota will bring its TSSC expertise to up to 20 community organizations in the coming year–and start operating the TSSC as a non-profit entity. The company already has a fire station interested in reducing its response time, and a high school interested in using the production system to reduce drop-out rates. So how will Toyota choose which organizations to work with? “We still have to come up with a system,” says Wiseman.

[Image by Flickr user St. Bernard Project]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more