It was a single thread that gave a man a dream, created a little history and displayed the talents of a remarkable mind and a family with resourcefulness in its genes.
Sakichi Toyoda wasn’t all that interested in fast-moving machinery — just machines in motion. It’s how the Toyota Production System began. It’s how an inventor with a sharp eye and even sharper mind built an empire.
Today it’s evident on every production line at Toyota and at other companies that use the system. And it’s how Toyota Motor Co. is what it is, even if the wheel of progress didn’t begin as a wheel.
This family empire was born of thread, not tread as Toyoda was more interested in perfecting the loom, a machine used to weave textiles. It was an unusual start for what would become an automotive giant. But, then, Toyoda always seemed to plant grandiose plans that flowered into unlikely prosperity.
By age 23 he was appearing before Japan’s national exhibition in Tokyo showcasing his first invention, the wooden hand loom. Less than a decade later, he created the automatic loom and founded the Toyoda Group. The invention automatically stopped if any of the threads snapped, opening the way for automated loomworks where a single operator could handle dozens of pieces at a time. The principle of designing equipment to automatically stop and immediately call attention to problems would become crucial to the Toyoda Production System.
In 1929, when the British textile machinery maker Platt Bros. paid Toyoda $150,000 — a fortune at the time — for the rights to his latest loom, he earmarked the money for a venture that would make automobiles. Ford and General Motors Corp. were already building cars in Japan. Toyoda challenged his eldest son, Kiichiro, to “build a Japanese car with Japanese hands.”
Toyoda didn’t live to see it happen. He died on the day before Halloween in 1930 at age 63. But it did happen.
Soon after, Kiichiro set up the automotive department at Toyoda Automatic Loom Works and within a year had built the first engine … a genuine copy of a Chevrolet.
Kiichiro also took his father’s idea of efficiency in production and turn it into a system of “lean” manufacturing. If parts could be delivered to the assembly line just in time to be installed, the company could save money. Tools were grouped according to necessity and flow of production. He then had suppliers jump on board with the just-in-time system.
The first Toyota (the name was changed for corporate reasons) went into production in 1936. Modeled after Chryslers at the time, the vehicle was shelved because the Japanese government demanded trucks be made to help the military in China. Because of a different war, Toyota almost never happened.
At the beginning of the World War II, Toyota was building 1,000 vehicles a month. By the time the war had ended in 1945, a quarter of the plant in Koromo, now called Toyota City, was destroyed, supply lines were cut and demand was down. Through rebuilding efforts, occupation orders, hyperinflation then deflation, then near-bankruptcy, somehow Toyota survived.
By 1950, With Sakichi’s nephew, Eiji, involved in the company, Toyota realized exporting to the United States was the way to go, filling large-volume orders with another innovative form of production. The kanban system would call for the ordering of parts and supplies as they were used and correcting defects when they were discovered. Every Toyota worker had the power to stop the production line if a defect was found.
It was the same principle that revolved around the family loom. It would have made Sakichi proud. And so would the Crown, the first full-scale production model to roll out of the Toyota factory in 1955.
Eiji based his system on the American supermarket, something he viewed as the ultimate in buyer-supplier relations.
Eiji had gone to the United States to see car plants, but he found the most ingenuity in the grocery stores, marveling at the self-service and reliance each section had on the next. Still, success wouldn’t come easy. By the 1950s, when Eiji Toyoda went to Detroit, the Japanese company was making 40 cars a day, one-200th of what Ford was doing. But Toyota would find its niche in smaller cars such as the 1966 Corolla and the Corona before that.
Today, Toyota makes cars all over the world. What’s more, the way the company makes cars still reflects Sakichi’s ethic. It is the standard, the blueprint for the auto industry. It is the most efficient car maker in the world.
Success from a single thread.
Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.