From Mountains to Beaches – A Tour of the Toyota Factory

Visiting the Toyota factory was one of the highlights of my trip to Japan, and one of the reason was because I had just completed my graduate business education and what is better to brush up on the idea of supply chain management by experiencing the factory first-hand. I had obtained directions on how to get to the factory beforehand using this guide provided by Toyota. In fact the times are very accurate and as train service in Japan is very punctual to the minute!

Mikawa Toyota Train Station

Since I still have my Japan Rail Pass, I was able to board the JR Tokaido Line from Nagoya Station to Okazaki. However the transfer of train was very confusing for a first time visitor like myself. In actual fact there was no need for me to exit the station and I could do the transfer immediately. But I would need to get new tokens for the local Aichikanjo line that will bring me to Mikawa-Toyota, and that wasted some time resulting in me missing the scheduled train as 6 minutes was a really short time for a transfer especially when I need to purchase additional tickets. Another method is to reach Mikawa-Toyota station before explaining to the station master about the JR Pass and just pay the fare from Okazaki to Mikawa-Toyota, though it might be difficult since most station masters do not speak English.

Toyota Global HQ

Anyway I thought I would miss my tour guide time since my train would arrive at around 10:20 and it would take a 25 minute walk according to the guide to the factory. I figured I would just go ahead and take a taxi if I needed when I alighted. In the end it turns out it took more like 15 minutes to walk to the factory from Mikawa-Toyota station and arriving at the Toyota Kaikan building at around 10:35 leaving me still some time to enjoy the robot performance at the arrival centre, go for a restroom break and store my camera in the locker provided. It is best to arrive at the Toyota Kaikan by 10am to enjoy the exhibits in the centre and performances before heading for the tour which requires participants to assemble at the reception desk by 10:50am.

Toyota Kaikan Reception Lobby

Visitors are then guided to tour buses, with one being conducted in Japanese and another for English participants. The bus will then take a 30 minute drive to one of the Toyota factories and the guide will provide pamphlets with details of Toyota’s manufacturing plants and the history of the company and sights in ‘Toyota City’. Think of the bus ride as inculcating visitors to the world of Toyota! As the same bus will bring us back to the Toyota Kaikan after the tour, we can certainly bring bottled water and other necessities with us, leaving it at the bus while attending the factory tour.

Toyota Partner Robot Performance

The tour begins as the guide shows us the parts storage area, where all the parts for one vehicle are sorted to have a ‘Set Parts System’ or SPS which has been customized for one car assembly. This saves time for the workers assembling the car and allows minimal wastage and excess ordering of parts. Another feature of the plant tour was the Call Switch and Andon Board system whereby assembly workers will use to notify team leader about problems in the car he is working on, while allowing the line to proceed in the meantime. Only the team leader will halt assembly if problem cannot be rectified on time. This ensures production will not be stopped unnecessarily and reduces downtime. Another innovation with an interesting name is the Poka Yoke or fail safe device that is used to check if bolts have been tightened adequately in the engine and clutch assembly which is obviously an important component of the car.

Factory Tour Video Presentation

After showing us the main production line, the guide proceeds to show us with pride on the innovations that the workers have come up with. This section of the factory tour is perhaps the most interesting for me since visitors can play with these innovations in a room and try out for themselves how good they are. Some of the innovations includes a magnetic system using a gun and lift system that will collect the exact number of bolts thus reducing the time workers spend on counting the required number of bolts. Then there is the mechanical slide that will ensure a metal block falls in the right slot for assembly. Finally there are also games that pit visitors against each other to try out certain games within a pre-set time limit, a sleight of hand skills that is required of the assembly workers working in the plant. All these innovations show the HR side of the company where employees are encouraged to provide feedback to improve the process, and how every single workers act as quality control personnel themselves to improve quality and reduce defect rates. And finally the guide points out how all these tie in with Toyota’s philosophy of Better Product, Better Thinking where all workers are encouraged to improve the products constantly by thinking new ideas.

Good Thinking, Good Products

On the way back to the Toyota Kaikan, the guide proceeds with a ‘Do You Know?’ segment involving the company including how the name Toyota came about when the founder’s family name was actually Toyoda. Turns out the founder wanted the company to flourish for the society and not his family, and Toyota was deemed easier to pronounce, with the final reason being that the character for Toyota adds up to 8 strokes, and the figure 8 is deemed to be lucky for Japanese since the character for the figure 8 (八) looks like Mount Fuji.

Lexus LF-A in Yellow

Turns out visitors to the Toyota Kaikan can gain an insight into the production line by the models in the visitor centre. There was also a short video on the manufacturing process and other highlights of the company like its racing success. I spent the most time, however, browsing the extensive car collection and they do have the Lexus LF-A, Japan’s first supercar (and one of the rarest as well) on display at the Toyota Kaikan. The whole tour took about 2 hours with the time travelling on the bus and it was around 1pm by the time I was done. There is a Starbucks counter at the basement of the building along with a Japanese restaurant at the same floor, but I decided instead to head to the cafetaria and gift shop on the 2nd floor. However turns out only the gift shop is open but for Toyota’s HQ, the range of products weren’t as impressive as the one in Nissan’s HQ. In the end I headed back to Nagoya Station, retracing the route to the station and taking the train in the opposite direction, before having another meal of Hitsumabushi.

Yahagi River View on the Way Back to Nagoya

Overall, I would rate the Toyota Kaikan tour highly but I would suggest having a full breakfast and get ready for a late lunch as there is limited eating choices in the vicinity. It is very worth it to visit if you are an automobile enthusiast or someone looking to find out what an efficient automobile factory looks like. After all, it is not everyday you get to visit such a technologically advanced factory!

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