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How Toyota boosts productivity through lean management

20 November 2023

Sharing lessons from the ICE Community Advisory Board visit to Toyota’s Lean Management Centre.

How Toyota boosts productivity through lean management
Toyota aims to drive continuous improvement. Image credit: Shutterstock

Driving change, productivity and a lean mindset requires a strong culture, engaged staff and a focus on raising quality throughout all processes.

Especially if margins are to be improved and waste reduced.

These core principles are central to Toyota and its manufacturing of cars.

And it’s what members of the ICE’s Community Advisory Boards (CABs) explored during a recent visit to Toyota’s Lean Management Centre (LMC), in Deeside, North Wales.

The visit was designed to draw out ideas, lessons and best practice to apply to the infrastructure sector and drive productivity in design and operations.

Improving infrastructure productivity

Following the lifecycle guidance summary published in the State of the Nation 2022: Improving Infrastructure Productivity report, the ICE has created a new toolkit, Driving Productivity: Infrastructure Lifecycle guidance.

Now available to download, this resource is designed to help infrastructure professionals think about how they can drive productivity across every stage of an asset’s life.

Read the guidance

Eliminating waste and improving efficiency

Developed over several decades, Toyota’s ‘lean management’ philosophy is about driving continuous improvement.

This is underpinned by the Kaizen concept, which ensures that everyone at the company is committed to identifying and eliminating waste.

‘Kaizen’ is a Japanese term that broadly translates to ‘continuous improvement’.

‘Kai’ means ‘change’ and ‘zen’ means ‘for the better’.

For Toyota, the concept means a constant focus on efficiency, reviewing standards and maintaining a culture that’s open to learning or sharing ideas.

A core aspect of this is identifying and eliminating ‘muda’ (waste), so that more time can be spent on value-added work.

‘Muda’ is any part of the business that doesn’t add value. Removing it supports the car manufacturer’s devotion to just-in-time delivery.

Celebrating ideas

Initiatives to empower and motivate staff to come forward with ideas and solutions are at the heart of the company culture.

Ideas are widely shared and celebrated – from the biggest to the smallest – and time is allowed for all staff to contribute to this process, regardless of role or seniority.

Increasing reliability

Redundancy of systems – the intentional copying of elements of a system to increase reliability – is also important at Toyota.

Just as it is within a construction environment, as the absence of a team member can have an impact on the whole assembly process.

Toyota maintains 9% onsite system redundancy to support unexpected shortages.

But, it also directly employs about 80% of its staff to ensure a trained, flexible and motivated workforce to keep production moving.

A collaborative approach to ensuring quality

With quality being at the heart of Toyota’s production process, learning is critical to driving improvements and avoiding errors.

Information is shared among all teams, and issues are discussed daily with a focus on solutions.

One way in which problems are addressed is known as the ‘cabbage patch’: faulty parts produced the previous week are put on display for workers to view and handle so that issues can be understood.

Staff are keen to learn from other teams and shifts, but also want to know what to look out for so that future production problems can be spotted more quickly.

Dealing with problems

When problems occur, they are treated very differently from perhaps how they are typically dealt with in the construction sector.

Teams are discouraged from trying to correct errors or irregularities, such as an incorrect bolt.

Instead, they are advised to ‘stop, call, wait’ so that managers can assess and advise the best course of action.

To maintain standards, issues need to be identified and addressed throughout the production process.

Straying from the standard can have long-term effects on the quality of the product.

Speed isn’t always best

There’s also an appreciation at Toyota that speed isn’t necessarily good for ensuring standards.

Construction of an engine is completed every 54 seconds.

While a greater speed of production has been achieved, this was deemed inefficient as it led to quality issues, an increase in errors and stress on the team.

Lessons for the infrastructure sector

The ICE CAB members visited in June 2023.
The ICE CAB members visited in June 2023.

The infrastructure sector can learn much from Toyota’s approach to productivity, despite its advantage of producing a consistent product in a controlled environment.

Across the built environment, firms can invest more in their culture and people.

This would ensure that the whole workforce feels empowered to share ideas for improving processes.

Even the smallest changes can have a major benefit in the long term, and overcoming an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mindset is key.

Failing to get this right threatens to undermine the benefits that new technology can bring.

The role of automation

The impact and limits of automation on infrastructure projects need to be better understood.

People can add the greatest value to a project and are the most flexible and value-driven part of the process.

Toyota uses autonomous machines for incidental work and keeps workers focused on high-value tasks.

Fully automated sites may be further away than many in construction may think or wish.

Learning mindset

Most importantly, engineers and project leads need to take the time to learn from errors and issues, rather than leaping straight to the solutions stage.

Engineers may be great problem-solvers, but this often covers long-term issues with operations and designs, with negative effects on the quality of construction projects.

There are great opportunities ahead for the infrastructure sector.

However, the culture, processes and priorities need to be right if engineers are to create a real shift in productivity and drive better outcomes.

Following our visit to the Lean Management Centre, fellow CAB members joined me to discuss the experience and identify takeaways for the infrastructure sector and for project teams.

  • Darren James, chief executive officer at Keltbray Group