It was April 16, the day Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expanded the state of emergency to cover the entire nation to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.
Eight tough-looking men wearing Toyota Motor Corp. uniforms drove up to Funahashi Co., a small maker of raincoats in Nagoya.
“They really came! They look like the Avengers,” said Manami Otani, 24, a Funahashi employee, likening them to superheroes.
Funahashi, established in 1921, had been producing professional-use raincoats and waterproof aprons with around 35 workers, mostly part-timers.
But things took a turn with the coronavirus pandemic.
Facing a shortage of protective medical gowns, a medical institution asked company President Akihiko Funahashi, 53, whether the firm could make up for the shortfall.
After the firm started making protective gowns on a trial basis utilizing its know-how on raincoat production, the central government asked Funahashi to shift to mass production.
At that time, however, the firm only had the capacity to produce a maximum of 500 gowns a day.
The fact that some medical institutions were being forced to use garbage bags as a substitute haunted President Funahashi so much so that he lost sleep at night thinking about ways to increase production.
Enter one of the world’s top automakers.
On the morning of April 14, a Toyota official called the company and said: “We don’t know what kind of help we can offer, but can we visit your firm and see what we can do?”
Funahashi said that, at first, he was doubtful whether a global giant like Toyota would really come to help.
Amid the spread of the coronavirus, Toyota was looking for ways to support medical workers and makers of medical equipment by making use of its manufacturing and distribution expertise. Several Toyota officials noticed a Chunichi Shimbun report that said Funahashi Co. was seeking assistance in producing and delivering protective gowns, prompting them to contact the firm.
President Funahashi felt nervous as he welcomed a team of experienced Toyota officials who had spearheaded launches of new factories and new car models, wondering what kind of instructions they would have.
But he was surprised to hear one of them say to one of his part-time workers, “I know it would be troublesome for you to stop your work, but can I work with you?”
“We can’t say anything unless we try the process ourselves and understand how it works,” said Sadaharu Takamatsu, 47, an official with the Best Skill Promotion Department of Toyota’s Global Production Center.
Takamatsu, who joined Toyota Technical Skills Academy — the auto giant’s in-house training school — after graduating from junior high school, has been working in manufacturing throughout his career. His motto is “Start out by using your hands.”
After experiencing the manufacturing process at Funahashi himself, he immediately set out to implement Toyota-style kaizen (improvement) measures.
Funahashi had been producing single-use protective gowns. To make them, they first spread rolled polyethylene sheets, cutting them by the same length, layering them and then using a machine to cut them out into gowns.
After sleeves are attached using heat and ultrasound machines, the gowns are inspected, folded and readied for shipment.
Toyota officials first focused on the flow of materials between different processes and found that the process of stretching rolled sheets and placing them in layers was inefficient, slowing down the processes that follow.
By creating a device that enables stretching four rolls at once and changing the material from one-layered sheets to two-layered ones, they managed to increase production efficiency eightfold.
They timed each process and tried various measures such as conducting the folding process in pairs to reduce the time it took.
They also changed the layout in the factory to minimize the movements of people and goods and adjusted the height of the work tables to fit the workers so that it would be easier and less tiring for them to work.
The daily production volume of gowns, initially around 500, jumped to 4,000 after the Golden Week holidays in May.
“You just have to make a major structural change and then conduct small kaizen measures to save every second of time,” said Makoto Obinata, 56, who helped Funahashi based on his experience supporting Toyota factories in the United States and the United Kingdom. “We just did what we have been doing at Toyota.”
Toyota also coordinated with six small and midsized firms in the Tokai region that offered to help Funahashi, leading efforts to share each of their kaizen measures in meetings, daily reports and videos.
By cooperating to improve efficiency by making use of each of the companies’ strengths in areas such as parts manufacturing and sewing, the combined daily production of the seven-firm alliance increased a hundredfold from Funahashi’s initial capacity to 50,000.
Toyota President Akio Toyoda, 64, visited Funahashi Co. in June and said, “You are doing a great job and it is appreciated by society.”
In early April, Toyoda announced that the automotive industry would join the cause to help prevent the collapse of the nation’s medical system by supporting the production of masks and medical equipment.
“How can we do it? It’s because we still have craftsmanship in Japan,” Toyoda said. “We should never lose that.”
Cooperation among Toyota and the seven small and medium-size manufacturers, including Funahashi, to produce protective gowns also represented a struggle to maintain a high level of craftsmanship in the country.
In mid-June, Obinata and Takamatsu of Toyota visited Suikou Co., a sewing company in the city of Gifu that offered to help Funahashi with production of protective gowns.
They stressed the importance of making it a habit to record the production status. On a chart hanging on a wall, Suikou officials recorded the number of workers involved per hour, the number of gowns processed and the length of time of any production stoppages, for every step of production.
Toyota officials instructed the firm to put up the production analysis board to identify weak points and the time period when production dropped.
When production dipped, workers would write down the reasons, with examples cited including the need to place new sets of sheet rolls, help out workers at a different work station or to fix the position of the sheets.
“It was fun because we can clearly see what is achieved through kaizen measures,” said Yatsuma Ohori, 42, Suikou’s senior managing director. “Our productivity definitely improved.”
The information recorded by the seven firms is analyzed by Toyota and shared among them. The firms visited each other’s factories to study their efforts to increase production.
The seven firms also started adopting for their main businesses the Toyota production method of thoroughly eliminating waste, inconsistency and unreasonableness, through the use of production analysis boards.
Shinya Hasegawa, 60, who heads the swimwear department of Toyo Knit Co., a sportswear manufacturer in Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, said the firm’s workers started making suggestions to improve the manufacturing process after the company joined the protective gown production alliance and started working with Toyota.
Whenever there are equipment troubles or other problems with production, Toyota officials come to help, Hasegawa said.
“What is excellent about Toyota is its power to listen,” Hasegawa said. “I recognized that kaizen measures come up from an environment that makes it easy for workers to speak up.”
The Toyota team visited and supported the seven firms scattered around Aichi, Gifu and Mie prefectures. Takamatsu, who traveled more than 4,000 kilometers in the first two months, said, “Even including the experience of assisting factories overseas, I have never had such a fulfilling experience.”
Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Toyota aims to keep its annual domestic production of vehicles above 3 million.
“This goal cannot be realized solely by Toyota,” says Toyota’s Operating Officer Mitsuru Kawai, 72. “We can meet our goal only after getting the support of people involved in manufacturing and the local community, including auto parts makers, other manufacturers, and even barbers and greengrocers.”
As for the seven firms, the production of protective gowns was also a challenge for survival. They have been committed to manufacturing their products from beginning to end in Japan, where labor costs are high. But they have faced a decline in orders following the pandemic.
They were desperate to protect jobs, accepting many foreign trainees as well.
By visiting the firms, Toyota’s Obinata and Takamatsu said they saw how the firms are struggling to keep people employed and overcome language barriers with workers from abroad, saying the experience gave them an opportunity to look outside of Toyota and rethink their manufacturing practices.
Now, Toyota and the seven firms are developing a protective gown that is both waterproof and highly breathable, with an aim to create a new business out of this 100 percent domestically made gown.
Takashi Mori, 55, the general manager of Funahashi’s plant, says, “Toyota is saying it will maintain domestic production of at least 3 million cars in this sector amid fierce competition.”
Funahashi has been relocating part of its production to China and Myanmar in recent years, but it has begun to reconsider this strategy.
“There is no reason we can’t (keep producing in Japan), too.”
This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original articles were published on Aug. 24 and 25.