Having worked for over a decade as an entrepreneur and designer, I have become pretty adept at spotting opportunities for improvement. But it’s not as grandiose as you might imagine. A lot of it is picking up on small details and simply asking why. Here’s one recent example from when I was on my way to a client meeting.
I’m sure you picked up on it, but just in case it’s the “P2” and “B2”. Now while I don’t think of this particular case as life or death, I just couldn’t comprehend the logic (especially since this was the second or third time I’d seen this – I thought about writing about it the first time but thought for sure it was an anomaly). Were there no P2 buttons? Were there no B2 posters? Did the person doing the final check just not notice? My conclusion in the end was that it just didn’t matter – it’s just a button. They’ll figure it out. Details aren’t important.
I then contrasted this situation with something I picked up while at DC’s autoshow this past week. It was the brochure for the new Lexus (full disclosure – I don’t drive, own or necessarily want one) line and it was the only brochure that on the back page talked specifically about how they approach the details. I thought it was interesting, so here’s the eight categories and exact text:
The Master Craftsmen
There is no higher honor within the team members of a Lexus assembly plant than the Takumi, or Master Craftsman. Each of these experts is hand-selected for performing their craft more skillfully and artfully than the rest. Tasked with developing the standards of quality the thousands of other team members must achieve, this elite group of 10 oversees every aspect of vehicle assembly at the Tahara plant.
The Andon Cord
At every Lexus manufacturing plant, any worker can pull the andon cord to stop the entire production line. What type of crisis could possibly warrant such a drastic measure? A single nut turned a few degrees too far, for instance. Or a worker dropping a screw (a clear indication of a flaw in how it was passed). Every time the cord is pulled, the problem—if you can really call it that—is analyzed and adjustments are made to correct it.
Improving Our Surroundings
Our commitment to continuous improvement extends to the efficient and wise use of materials. When the seat cushions, floor mats and roof liner are made, the leftover bits and trimmings are not discarded. Instead, they are molded into sound insulation material to be used in the doors, roof, floor and chassis. And, in every manufacturing site, an underground conveyor-belt system captures excess bits and scraps of metal and ships to a recycler to be melted down for reuse.
This philosophy of continuous improvement is the guiding principle at Lexus. It empowers everyone—whether engineer or assembly line worker—to look for ways to improve our vehicles and the processes that build them. How seriously do we take this philosophy? Every day in our design buildings, scores of engineers are required to scrutinize a recently introduced Lexus until they figure out some way, any way, to improve upon it.
Quality doesn't come easy. Within the Tahara plant alone, there are 26,000 separate tasks that can be certified as done correctly. Each of these tasks must be accurately demonstrated and described in painstaking detail by a craftsman to receive certification. How much detail? Consider this: There's a 14-minute film on how to place a grommet correctly—a task that takes a mere two seconds.
Eye For Color
Imagine 15 small vials of paint. All of them red. Each vial a slightly different hue. To help our craftsmen's eyes become more attuned to slight variations in color, they practice arranging vials like these in descending order of hue. Again and again. Over time, this practice better equips them to immediately spot and correct for the slightest color inconsistencies between body panels.
Counting By Hand
Without looking, a Lexus craftsman must be able to reach into a bowl of bolts and pull out exactly five of them. It's a way to help tune the sense of touch in every hand along the assembly line. To see by feeling. To know that something is exactly as it should be just by holding it in your hand. So that every part of a Lexus will not only look precisely right, but also feel so.
The human hand can often be the most important tool on the assembly line. To help it perform to its potential, Lexus developed a latex disc that gives each finger its own workout. Craftsmen place their fingers in an elastic webbing and squeeze and rotate their hands to strengthen their fingers and wrists. This daily exercise helps a great deal with fatigue, which in turn allows each craftsman to be much more consistent through a given shift.
Now while I realize that brochures are marketing material, my 10 years living and working in Japan tells me that the approach to details is captured pretty much spot on. And while Lexus is a manufacturing company, I think there are some interesting perspectives that are applicable to almost any business. Here’s how I’d rewrite the eight points into set of questions for any business:
Master Craftsmen: Who are the “master craftsmen” in your business and are you effectively training, motivating and leading them?
Andon Cord: Does your company have an “andon cord” philosophy and are your employees empowered to use it?
Improving your surroundings: What waste does your company generate and how are you using it?
Kaizen: Are you employees empowered to look for ways to improve things no matter how small?
26,000 Certifications: What are employees expected to know and how do you measure it?
Eye for Color: Do your employees know how to differentiate passable outcomes for truly successful ones?
Counting by Hand: Are your operational processes documented so that you can improve upon them and maximize efficiency?
Factory Conditioning: Are your training programs focused on immediate task development or personal development that will help shape all future tasks?
The reason I think this is all interesting is that when people ask me about design and branding, I am often tempted to say that I’m in the details business. Whether it’s about understanding organizational values, processes or strategy or figuring out things like color, typography, and layout, branding is about paying very close and conscious attention to the details and how they fit together and then helping clients become Jobs-like fanatical (to a point) about delivering excellence without compromise. It doesn't always turn out how you'd hope (remember the Apple Newton?), but the aspiration means that details begin to matter to everyone in the organization and in the long run this can lead to some pretty nice results (read iPad).