Many have copied the title “team leader” because of the importance of this position inside the Toyota Production System. Yet, it is hard to replicate the role and responsibilities without understanding the whole picture.
To understand their roles, here is an investigation into the “original team leaders” assigned directly underneath Taiichi Ohno. They played a significant role in the development of the system.
All of them were “College graduates” of mechanical engineering.
Taiichi Ohno’s development of the Toyota Production System started when Toyota was in a financial crisis. Because of the crisis, Toyota laid off people in the 1950s. According to those who lived through the crisis, some left volunteered. Those were typically high-skilled, and there were opportunities outside. Besides, Toyota Motor was just a tiny entrepreneurship in the blink of bankruptcy. The head of the Central Bank of Japan said the country does not need automobile OEM. It was better for them to find jobs outside Toyota. So Ohno was in trouble. He had some ideas he wanted to try but didn’t have the means to get it done. The labor union hated the “Ohno approach.”
To solve the above problems, Toyota assigned several “college graduates” as the “team leaders” directly under Taiichi Ohno. Here are some names. Kikuo Suzumura, Ituo Mamiya, Takeo Watabe, etc. There are a few more, and they became famous because they continued working with Ohno for the rest of their lives. All of them had Mechanical engineering degrees from a college.
This degree needs additional explanation since it was Japan's unique old education system. It might be called a specialized school. None of these schools exist today. But they merged to form current universities. Like Ohno and Suzumura went to separate schools. However, those schools joined and became Nagoya Institute of Technology. The university considers both as their graduates.
On top of such technical colleges, Japan did have a mechanical engineering degree that is the same as today in universities. They offered four-year programs with more specified subjects, such as automobiles, aeronauticals, etc. Graduates of these were not assigned as team leaders. It was rare for Toyota at that time to have such graduates.
The program was a three-year program. Above is the program with subjects and credits that Ohno went through. It is hard to understand the contents. But it gives some idea of the foundational education these “team leader prototypes” had before working. Starting from basic subjects to covering the basics of mechanical engineering at that time. And half of the credits were given by “Drawing,” “Experiments,” and “Practices.”
These were the team leaders who implemented the Toyota production system. For example, Ohno wanted to implement the standardized work. He started the implementation at Toyota Boushoku before transferring to Toyota Motor. He sent one of the team leaders to study standardized work to Boushoku. Upon return, the team leaders were responsible for the implementation, and eventually, they came up with the idea of the combination table. In another example, the concept of separating man and machine work existed, but it took a lot of work to implement in some machining. They knew about some switches, but those were too expensive. It was Suzumura who came up with a device to stop it. It was this device that allowed the Jidouka concept to become real.
An important note was that these college graduates weren’t just controlling the team by knowledge. Many have practiced the actual manufacturing skills to lead the team. This was because that was the fastest way to gain the trust of the team members. Another reason was probably the best ones had left, so they were the ones who needed to remaster some skills. Suzumura recalls that it was great that the expected quality level was not as high then since he produced many defects during practice.
The success of this group highlights a unique view of “team leader.”
1️⃣ Importance of people development.
It has been said before, but the insight of the original team leaders, who were young engineers, reinforces the importance of people development. This group's success gave Toyota a productivity advantage, which didn’t require hiring too many workers. Taiichi Ohno’s concepts were terrific, but I’m unsure how far he could go alone. Having good knowledge workers with manufacturing skills made it possible for the idea to come alive on Genba. And there were additional challenges. By the time this system started, the supply of similar talents had ended since the education system had changed. Ohno and Suzumura’s alma mater merged and only offered a standard mechanical engineering degree. Such engineers were in need in different areas, not in production. Yet, as Ohno’s responsibility grew and the application of the Toyota Production System grew, they required knowledge workers as team leaders. The only option for them was to develop more knowledge workers internally.
2️⃣ Mechanical engineering is product & process engineering for Toyota.
Maybe any engineering is fine, but in Toyota’s case, mechanical engineering is product and process engineering. A technical knowledge of the product and process provides additional capability to proceed with Kaizen. A critical capability is drawing. I am not saying that current team leaders can draw component drawings like mechanical engineers. Yet, they seem to have the capability to understand it. There is an episode where newly appointed Toyota CEO Sato (Another mechanical engineer) was summoned by Genba since he made an error in the welding code when he was young. The Genba could have adjusted the drawing, but instead, they ensured the original author recognized the mistake.
3️⃣ More topics tested by the specialists, then team leader
The knowledge required for a team leader didn’t end with mechanical engineering. To do Kaizen, they need to know about time and motion studies from industrial engineering. Total quality management comes into place later. Total productive maintenance also becomes essential. They need to know about administrative things like human resources. Even if the knowledge requirement increases, the team leaders, as super generalists, can handle those topics on Genba. That’s probably because “old” topics, like quality, are standardized, and rules are always respected. Specialists comprehended the new issues before being passed to the team leaders. Ohno and his team first operated the Toyota Production System before passing the responsibility of running them to production.
4️⃣ Respecting tacit know-how and manufacturing skills
Finally, the importance of tacit know-how and manufacturing skills. These engineers didn’t just control the shop floor with their knowledge. They have tried to learn the skills and know-how to keep the operations. We can see this inside today’s Work Standards. Inside a work standard, we write the Kan & Kotsu. Kan【勘】 is intuition or hunch. Kotsu 【コツ】is trick or technic. Both might be slang in Japanese, but they kept them since those are required to be passed on to work efficiently. Of course, they know they can’t pass these by just writing them on work standards. They need to make sure that the people get enough experience on them. However, writing on the work standard was the first step in acknowledging that something exists inside a process by a team leader. Since the company acknowledged that these Kan & Kotsu were important, they started developing those who experienced them into team leaders with training on other topics.
Young engineers were the prototype of a team leader under the Toyota Production System. The young engineers grew with Ohno to form OMDD. At the same time, the team leader positions remained responsible for standardized work, Kaizen, and many other things. Yet, regardless of their backgrounds, today’s team leaders have engineering mindsets.
Noguti, Hisasi (1988). The man who created the Toyota Production System. Battle of Taiichi Ohno. TBS Britannica