The Toyota Way: Imitate, Improve, Innovate

Few companies have a reputation quite like Toyota, with a company philosophy so clearly defined and effective. Russ Bankson is one of the individuals responsible for shaping the Toyota Way for the modern era. In a recent interview, he shared some of the company’s cultural objectives, as well as how his own experiences with Toyota have taught him to learn and grow.

CV: How do you create and maintain a culture of innovation at Toyota Motor North America?

RB: This is such a timely question. When we made the decision to consolidate our manufacturing, sales and marketing, and financial services divisions, we developed a new North American headquarters here in Plano, Texas, just north of Dallas. A key priority from the beginning was to create the right culture, knowing that we were relocating people from all over—California, New York, Kentucky, Indiana... We didn't want to simply copy everything to the new headquarters and pick up where we left off. Rather, we wanted to make this change an opportunity to both reinforce our deeply engrained Toyota Way culture and improve on it.

CV: What were your priorities for improving on the culture?

RB: We really wanted to put our energy into creating a united, focused culture. One of the main priorities was innovation. Our global president, Akio Toyoda, recently spoke out on innovation. His great grandfather Sakichi Toyoda innovated with looms in the late 1800s, and then his grandfather Kiichiro Toyoda with automobiles in the early 1900s. They both followed a fairly simple process, starting with imitating the best practices of their day to educate themselves in their field. Once they were able to imitate with accuracy, they started focusing on improvements, ever aiming to make the product better. These kaizen, or continuous improvements, led to the point where they could then innovate. Sakichi’s innovations transformed the hand-operated loom into the automatic loom. From that, he created a circular loom that removed the need for a thread shuttle and the wasteful need to change directions. Now, even as Toyota innovates into incredible new territory with the automobile, we still follow that simple formula: imitate, improve, innovate.

CV: How do you keep the Toyota Way principles alive?

RB: People are curious about what makes Toyota tick. Sakichi Toyoda’s core concepts from his loom business were developed further by his son, Kiichiro, and were eventually assembled into what we know today as the Toyota Production Sytem (TPS) by Taiichi Ohno, The Father of TPS. The two main pillars of TPS are the famous Just-in-Time system and jidoka (built-in quality).  

We have a core set of Toyota Way courses that we teach every Team Member, each of which incorporates our foundational values, problem solving, jidoka, annual planning, and on-the-job development. These courses are global, not just for North America. From day one, new hires start with the Toyota Way basics. As I mentioned, people are curious about what makes Toyota tick, and our employees are no exception. Once their onboarding session is complete, they are immediately signed up for the next course. Learning the Toyota Way is like taking on a new language. We actually do have our own terminology, which helps us communicate with each other more smoothly. You may have heard of genchi gembutsu, or go and see for yourself—that’s a big one.

CV: How do you stay relevant for the younger generations?

RB: Relevancy is always on our minds. Younger team members not only use technology in new ways, but demand different ways of learning. We keep our Toyota Way sessions hands on so that the applicability is clear and easily actionable. Solving real problems with small teams really appeals to our younger team members and, as it turns out, to our leaders, too! Keeping up with technology is important for reaching younger minds. We supplement in-class courses with material accessible on mobile devices, though we don't plan to remove the in-class sessions anytime soon. Learning key concepts requires face-to-face discussion, questioning, and collaboration.

CV: How do you ensure that your team stays diverse and inclusive?

RB: Toyota provides lots of opportunities for team members to get involved in affinity groups that suit their backgrounds and life choices, such as through our Business Partnering Groups (BPG). We also introduce the concept of unconscious bias from day one in our onboarding sessions. Managers are encouraged to be inclusive, giving voices to every member of their team. We strive to reflect the diversity of customers in our own team members to better understand how to meet market needs and improve lives.

CV: What was your experience with the Toyota Way in Japan?

RB: Well, I spent four years working in our global headquarters in Toyota City. Those were four of my most enjoyable years with Toyota. I am an aggressive learner, and there was so much to learn there. One of many lessons I learned while working in Japan was that the Toyota Way’s respect for people takes on different forms in different cultures.

I remember I was making a proposal to my general manager (GM) in an open office environment. With more than one hundred Japanese team members around, I felt somewhat overwhelmed and intimidated. It felt like all one hundred of them were listening in on me—the foreigner. Of course, they might not have cared about my proposal, but I'm sure the people closest to the GM's desk were curiously eavesdropping on my native English. When I finally finished my proposal, the GM laughed out loud. I was so embarrassed and couldn't understand why I’d received that kind of reaction. But I decided at that moment to learn from it, not to react. The GM went on to challenge my proposal in a few key areas and asked me to rethink some things. After I recovered from the embarrassment, I regrouped and worked with the GM to produce a much better proposal that was ultimately successful.

You see, the GM cared enough to push me to think more deeply, to challenge the status quo and be more strategic. It was uncomfortable, but only until I learned to shelve my American cultural perspective. Now I’m thankful to that GM for making me a better team member.

Our drive to challenge the status quo through imitation, improvemnet (kaizen), and eventually innovation is tied directly to our ultimate goal of providing mobility solutions that improve society.

Photo credit: Cristian Vlad

Russ Bankson has over twenty-five years with Toyota across the globe in a broad array of functions, including Purchasing, Global Human Resources, the Toyota Institute in Japan, and the University of Toyota in the USA. Currently, he serves on the Toyota Motor North America Human Resources Talent Development Team. While in Toyota City, Japan, Russ contributed to the development of written Toyota Way contents for the Toyota Institute. He also worked to integrate the Toyota Way concepts into Toyota’s European market while working at the European headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

A seasoned veteran of business transformation, organizational development and innovation initiatives, both in terms of product and organizational innovation, Cristian Vlad is the President and CEO of JCE Japan Creative Enterprise, a young and dynamic agency which helps corporate teams transform their business and manage their talent. Cristian has been advising global clients on the role of diversity, human capital, creativity and corporate communications as strategic business drivers to foster innovation and stimulate business growth. He has been recognized by both multinational corporations and emerging enterprises as a thought leader in the areas of business strategy, relationship management, organizational development and architecture, leadership, social media, collaborative environments, people operations, transformation and business model innovation. In parallel, Cristian is an IBM Global Business Services consultant, advising corporate clients on Talent and Organizational Transformation projects.

Prior to his current role, Cristian was project manager at Toyota Motor Corporation, where he led a team of advanced product development professionals within the Corporate Value Creation Department. He also consulted on numerous organizational changes, corporate rebranding and transformation projects globally, in a wide rage of industries. Cristian holds an MA in International Relations from Hirosaki University and a dual BA in Communications and Foreign Language Education from the University of Bucharest.

Cristian currently resides in Fukuoka, Hong Kong and San Francisco.

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