After he assumed the role of CIO for Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America in 2011, one of Tim Platt’s first actions was to take a long, hard look at what value IT was providing.
It was not a simple task.
Each vehicle plant, parts plant, and business unit had its own president, support groups, culture, and history. One exception was IT, which was in the process of becoming a company-wide, integrated unit that would serve each location centrally. Platt and his staff had to reach out to geographically dispersed business units and assess what IT had done for them. “I did an inventory of our contributions and discovered that we were not contributing dramatically to the mission of building cars,” Platt says. “There was definitely opportunity to contribute much more significantly to the core business and the bottom line.”
Toyota North America’s IT Appliance Portfolio
Desktops and laptops
No one was going to come to Platt with ideas about how IT could step up its game, so he had to take the initiative. IT at Toyota had rarely engaged with manufacturing, a fact that had to change if Platt’s group was to contribute more to the business. Platt realized he had to pry open channels of communication between his team and the company’s manufacturing plants in the Midwest, the South, the West Coast, and Texas. Picking up the phone and calling a few executives was fine as far as it went, but really gaining insight and inspiration was going to take many in-person meetings on the manufacturing floor.
This level of give-and-take with those outside of the IT realm doesn’t come easy for a self-described “extreme introvert,” Platt admits. He had to overcome a natural hesitance to strike up conversations with managers and floor workers alike. Stepping outside his comfort zone in that manner, however, proved to be well worth the effort.
Platt figured the most useful information would come from those closest to day-to-day operations. He had to connect with group leaders, the lowest-salaried supervisors who are responsible for up to forty production line employees. Platt had to meet manufacturing personnel on their terms and in their environment. Small details would count for a lot, he reasoned, so rather than visit a plant floor in a suit and tie, he went in a manufacturing jacket and safety shoes.
His aim on these trips was to learn in detail about each location’s functional objectives, including goals pertaining to things like uptime, how performance was monitored, and common problems that pop up on the plant floor.
“There was an awful lot of data locked away in equipment throughout the facility,” Platt says. Conveyors, robotic machinery, and other gear on the plant floors held valuable clues that could help managers better understand how the facility was performing. Armed with this data, managers could identify problem areas—a conveyor requiring maintenance, for instance—much faster.
Inspired, Platt saw that his team could develop a digital visualization system to provide easily readable, real-time representation of how the plant floor was functioning. The application could be read from any mobile device, making them more convenient and more useful than stationary monitors. He assembled a project team to develop a pilot project for an Alabama engine plant whose visual display board was not working well.
The resulting system allows managers to drill down to a production zone—or even further, to an individual line—to monitor the current state of activity or view trend data to compare performance over a given period. This can show what function or equipment has been causing the most trouble over the previous days or weeks, for example. That pilot project delivered on its promises, and IT began rolling the system out to other locations.
About two years later, Platt and his team had a memorable meeting with the head of production engineering. “We said we’ve got some activities that overlap with what you’re doing, and we want to make sure that we’re not stepping on each other,” he remembers. The two groups hammered out an understanding so that IT would focus on production visualization and production engineering would focus on production equipment. The engineering group would also make sure that manufacturing equipment data was available to IT so Platt’s team could continue to build on what they had done.
To form lasting bonds with manufacturing, Platt created a common communications framework that included regularly scheduled reviews. Platt’s team also developed a “Voice of the Group Leader” program to ensure that key production personnel would have a formal venue for airing concerns. He found out that group leaders, responsible for everything that happens on a production line, used fifteen to twenty data systems on the manufacturing floor, but didn’t have sufficient input on the system’s designs. These initiatives transcended the usual IT box. “We became not only IT leaders, but also business leaders,” Platt says.
Furthering the Conversation
Tim Platt supports diversity in the workplace, helping the talent pool’s most marginalized have their voices heard.
Finding and nurturing a steady supply of capable technologists and leaders is a major concern. Platt believes it is his responsibility to encourage more women and minorities to enter the profession and thrive in it. “So many young people who would have wonderful career opportunities in STEM fields are not seeing the opportunities,” he says. It’s up to people like him to show how much fun and fulfilling a technology career can be, he adds.
As the executive sponsor for Toyota North America’s Women’s Leadership Program, Platt often finds himself the rare man in a group of more than one hundred women. IT also participates in Toyota’s efforts to create links with university minority student groups. These efforts include annual camps at which IT personnel impart what it’s like to work in the field and establish mentoring relationships with students.
Toyota, Platt says, strives to incorporate diversity into the general course of business, including establishing vendor relationships with women-owned and minority-owned businesses. “Diversity is a way of life,” he says. “There are programs for it, but it needs to be something that’s always on your mind.”
IT’s links to manufacturing remain strong, a trait that continues to pay dividends by adding value to Toyota’s legendary commitment to Lean principles. Ongoing formal and informal collaboration enables IT to continually refine manufacturing applications. For example, developers have to stay abreast of replacement cycles of manufacturing equipment so that information can be included in certain applications.
There seems to be no end to the opportunities for IT to contribute to manufacturing. “Within the past year or two, it’s been more about how can we get as many of these activities as we can going in parallel,” Platt says. “We’ve gone from a portfolio of two pilot applications to sixty in various stages of development.”
Top management has taken notice of the accomplishments. On a factory tour, Toyota North America Engineering and Manufacturing’s CEO took note of the technology that was in use, including mobile and digital displays of assembly line production. He was impressed with the applications that IT had developed, including an internal logistics system that is rare in Toyota’s global facilities. At a follow-up meeting, Platt’s team made a presentation to the CEO outlining what he had observed on the tour and the business contributions IT had made. “He had known that we were in the manufacturing space, but hadn’t realized exactly how significant our contribution was until that tour,” Platt says.
Impressed, the CEO created and now chairs the Advanced IT Manufacturing Group. “The group includes stakeholders that help to market, sponsor, and guide our activities,” Platt says. One of the steering committee members is the top executive overseeing the famed Toyota Production System implementation in North America. Indeed, Platt has not only demonstrated how IT can deliver value to the core business, but has earned the trust and respect of top business leaders. At Toyota, the voice of IT is heard loud and clear.