Toyota HQ in Plano, Texas, where the Toyota Way is studied and evolved modern business
Toyota HQ in Plano, Texas | Photo credit: Cristian Vlad

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Confirmation Bias

We all subconsciously collect information that reinforces our preconceptions. It's natural . . . but it does lead to a kind of flawed decision-making called confirmation bias. To become more objective and impartial, check out this course from GLOBIS Unlimited!

Few companies have a reputation quite like Toyota. Its philosophy and corporate culture aren’t just clearly defined—they’re effective. The Toyota Way has stood tall for almost a century.

But times change, and companies must do the same. Russ Bankson is one of the people responsible for shaping the Toyota Way for the modern era. In a recent interview with GLOBIS University lecturer Cristian Vlad, he shared some of the company’s global values and cultural objectives, as well as how his own experiences with Toyota in Japan taught him to learn and grow.

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Origin and Evolution of the Toyota Way

Cristian Vlad: How do you create and maintain a culture of innovation at Toyota Motor North America?

Russ Bankson: This is such a timely question. When we made the decision to consolidate our manufacturing, sales and marketing, and financial services divisions, we developed a new North American headquarters here in Plano, Texas, just north of Dallas. A key priority from the beginning was to create the right culture.

We knew we’d be relocating people from all over the US—California, New York, Kentucky, Indiana. We didn’t want to simply copy everything to the new headquarters and pick up where we left off. Rather, we wanted to make this change an opportunity to both reinforce the Toyota Way and improve on it.

Vlad: What were your priorities for improving on the Toyota Way?

Bankson: We really wanted to put our energy into creating a united and focused corporate culture. One of the main priorities was innovation.

Our global president, Akio Toyoda, recently spoke about innovation. His great-grandfather, Sakichi Toyoda, innovated with looms in the late 1800s. Then his grandfather, Kiichiro Toyoda, innovated automobiles in the early 1900s. They both followed a fairly simple process, starting with imitating the best practices of their day to educate themselves in their field. Once they were able to imitate with accuracy, they started focusing on ways to constantly improve the product.

These kaizen, or continuous improvements, became the foundation for the Toyota Way. The hand-operated loom became the automatic loom, then a circular loom that removed the need for a thread shuttle and eliminated the wasteful need to change directions. Today, we still follow that simple formula to continually improve our work.

The Toyota Way is all about imitate, improve, innovate.

Russ Bankson standing before Toyota's US HQ, where he's part of ensuring the evolution of the Toyota Way
Russ Bankson at Toyota HQ | Photo credit: Cristian Vlad

The Toyota Way and Human Resources

Vlad: How do you keep the Toyota Way’s guiding principles alive long term?

Bankson: People are curious about what makes Toyota tick. Sakichi Toyoda’s core concepts from his loom business were developed further by his son Kiichiro and eventually became the Toyota Production System (TPS) with Taiichi Ohno. The two main pillars of TPS are the famous Just-in-Time system and jidoka (built-in quality).

We have a core set of Toyota Way courses that we teach every team member. Organizational learning is part of how we develop exceptional people. Each course covers our foundational values, problem solving, jidoka, annual planning, and on-the-job development. These courses are global, not just for North America.

From day one, new hires start with the Toyota Way basics. As I mentioned, people are curious about what makes Toyota tick, and our employees are no exception.

Once onboarding is complete, everyone is immediately signed up for the next course. Learning the Toyota Way is like taking on a new language. We actually do have our own terminology, which helps us communicate with each other more smoothly. You may have heard of genchi gembutsu, or “go and see for yourself”—that’s a big one.

Vlad: How do you stay relevant for the younger generations?

Bankson: Relevancy is always on our minds. Younger team members not only use technology in new ways, but demand different ways of learning.

We keep our Toyota Way sessions hands on. Solving real problems with small teams really appeals to our younger team members and, as it turns out, our leaders, too! We supplement in-class courses with material accessible on mobile devices, though we don’t plan to remove the in-class sessions anytime soon. Handing over the keys to the Toyota Way requires face-to-face discussion, questioning, and collaboration.

Vlad: How do you ensure that your team stays diverse and inclusive?

Bankson: Toyota provides lots of opportunities for team members to get involved in affinity groups that suit their backgrounds and life choices. We also introduce the concept of unconscious bias from day one in our onboarding sessions. Managers are encouraged to be inclusive and give a voice to every member of their team. We strive to reflect the diversity of a customer-first mentality internally to better understand how to meet market needs and improve lives.

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We all subconsciously collect information that reinforces our preconceptions. It's natural . . . but it does lead to a kind of flawed decision-making called confirmation bias. To become more objective and impartial, check out this course from GLOBIS Unlimited!

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The Toyota Way at Home and Abroad

Vlad: What was your experience with the Toyota Way in Japan?

Bankson: I spent four years working in our global headquarters in Toyota City. Those were four of my most enjoyable years with Toyota. I am an aggressive learner, and there was so much to learn there.

One of many lessons was that the Toyota Way’s respect for people takes on different forms in different cultures.

Vlad: How so?

Bankson: I remember making a proposal to my general manager (GM) in an open office environment. With more than one hundred Japanese team members around, I felt somewhat overwhelmed and intimidated. It felt like all one hundred of them were listening in on me, the foreigner. Of course, they might not have cared about my proposal, but I’m sure the people closest to the GM’s desk were curiously eavesdropping on my native English.

When I finally finished my proposal, the GM laughed out loud!

I was so embarrassed and couldn’t understand why I’d received that kind of reaction. But I decided at that moment to learn from it, not to react. The GM went on to challenge my proposal in a few key areas and asked me to rethink some things. After I recovered from the embarrassment, I regrouped and worked with him to produce a much better proposal that was ultimately successful.

You see, the GM cared enough to push me to think more deeply, to challenge the status quo, and be more strategic. It was only uncomfortable until I learned to shelve my American cultural perspective. Now I’m thankful for how the experience made me a better team member.

Our drive to challenge the status quo through imitation, improvement (kaizen), and eventually innovation is tied directly to our ultimate goal of providing mobility solutions that improve society.

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