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Talking with Toyota Texas: A major SA employer's 2020 journey | COMMERCE STREET

In this episode of the Commerce Street podcast, KENS 5 speaks with Toyota Texas' Vice President of Manufacturing.

SAN ANTONIO — KENS 5's 'Commerce Street' podcast covers business and economy stories from across San Antonio. To listen, subscribe on Apple or Spotify; not sure how? Click here to find out. Have an idea? Email ezucco@kens5.com. 

Toyota Texas, like nearly every business, was forced to pause, plan and pivot quickly to keep workers safe and production steady. KENS 5 spoke with Vice President of Manufacturing Susann Kazunas about how the manufacturer crafted new protocols, the measures that protected much of their supply chain process and progress on reinvestment to update the plant.

Listen to the full conversation below:

Give me a status report of how things are looking right now in terms of production here in San Antonio. I know ya’ll are up and running- and I imagine it looks a lot different than it did a year ago at this time.

From a production volume perspective, we’re running pretty much full-tilt. We’re running anywhere from 800 to 1000 trucks a day; we’ve been running since May, though we started off pretty slowly. As you said, things look a lot different than they did a year ago. 

We have put a tremendous amount of protocol in place to be sure we keep our people safe. We had a seven-week interruption that went from March until mid-May, and during that time period our regional roots put together the handbook of protocols- everything from temperature screenings to requirements for face coverings, all these things that have to be done to be sure we’re keeping our team members safe. Because if people aren’t feeling safe, they can’t focus on their job. And that really has been the most important part for us. 

When we came back in May, we moved very slowly, moving back up to full production – but, I’m gonna’ tell you, people want their trucks! We have such loyal and fabulous customers and we really haven’t seen a pause in that demand. That’s been pretty exciting for us; we’re running full-tilt and we’re excited about making the best full-size truck in America.

I remember Toyota was also involved in helping to supply personal protective equipment here in San Antonio- if you can talk about how you were able to shift gears and do that. 

During our shutdown- we had a production interruption that went really from middle of March, through the middle of May. It was seven weeks. And in the beginning, we were the same as everybody else across America; there was kind of this sense of, what do we do? Regionally some of our leaders started to come together to ask, what is the protocol, what is the safe protocol, we need to come back to work. And at the same time, there was just continuous discussion about, what can we do to contribute? So people started getting together and it was quickly realized we could make face shields. That’s what we do. We make stuff. So it’s just so important to be able to get back to making stuff- to feel like you’re contributing, and to have purpose. 

So around April, just a couple weeks into our shutdown, we started the production of face shields and produced 75,000 face shields. From that number, around 40,000 ultimately were given to the San Antonio, Bexar County community for distribution. We gave 30,000 to the state of Texas, and for our team members and for us, it gave us purpose. We were- it was an exciting time for us to regroup and feel like we were contributing to something bigger. And it was our understanding that most of those face shields went to first responders, hospitals, educators – we left it up to the officials to decide where they were best used. So that was really encouraging. And we also made a lot of face masks; but those were for us. 

We were really worried that we didn’t want to start ordering face coverings or face masks that would take away from the healthcare workers. Cause if you remember back in April, that was a concern. We knew we were going to require face coverings for this plant when we reopened so we ordered N98 material in big roll form and ended up making face masks used by our facility as well. So between the face shields and the face masks, we kept ourselves pretty busy.

I know you mentioned safety was the number one concern- making sure when employees got back, they could do so safely. If you can walk me through the protocols ya’ll put in place because I’d imagine some smaller businesses could learn from that.

We have a regional protocol, which was developed with members from our manufacturing plants across North America. The first step in that is number one, that we have a survey so anyone coming into our facility, that we understand those folks are healthy. And we partnered with, we had some health providers that we used, that we partnered with, and some epidemiologists we went to to get advice on our questionnaire, but also looking at our protocols that we put in place. And of course, we really put a lot of effort into referencing all the data and science that was out there. 

It made things quite different when you come to our facility. When you come in, we have what we call thumbs up or thumbs down, which is about our questionnaire; then we have temperature screening. We made one-way walkways and aisleways. We put marks on the floor, so people could see spacing of six feet; we enacted the face covering requirement from when you get out of your vehicle, all the way in here. The only time you can take that off is while eating or drinking. And because we really wanted to focus on that period, we studied our break areas, our cafeteria areas, we put in six foot distancing and in some cases we added some barriers to make sure we were keeping people same. 

And we looked at our processes and ultimately also adopted face shields so any time we have people interacting in a group, they gotta wear a face shield. It's been tough, but now that we’re, however many months we’re into this- people have really adapted and what we hear from team members is that they feel safe coming into work. We need them to feel safe so they can focus on building great trucks for our customers- because the most important thing we do is to make sure we have great quality, safe trucks for our customers.

I remember last year there were a lot of announcements coming out of Toyota, a lot of excitement over reinvestment, expansion, which meant committing to being in San Antonio for at least awhile. So if you can give me an update on where those are – I’m sure you’ve been busy this year, but is all of that still underway?

We did announce, if you remember, in the summer of 2019 that $391 million investment focused on modernizing our facility and giving us some expansion. And it’s really related to the order we built vehicles in. When this plant was built, we built cabs and decks separately, then we married those two together, into the truck. But that’s not our standard assembly order, from a global standard perspective, in how vehicles are built. 

So this isn’t about a new model- it’s about our future flexibility. We’re changing the way we build our trucks so if and when we want to add additional products, we have the flexibility and the agility to that. Because we’ll be building in the standard assembly order. And if you remember in January of this year, we announced that the Sequoia will be transferring from Indiana to this plant and that change in our assembly order was really the critical piece to that. But it’s expensive and requires a lot of our changes in the assembly shop and how we build. 

And in addition to that, in other areas of our production plant, we’re adding modernization like with robots- we’re adding some new equipment in terms of healthy material joining, all things that really just prepare us for the future, and it’s going great. Pretty excited about it. 

We’ve had a few hiccups along the way as it relates to our plant preparation, especially as COVID came in- we have a lot of contractors, construction workers coming in now, and we had to take a pause of how to do that safely and how to make sure we apply protocol to that as well; ultimately things are on track. We’re moving right along toward being ale to fully execute and be ready with our new assembly order in the spring.

I know you have a lot of local suppliers that supply some of the parts. Were there any issues getting material you needed to build trucks- and did having local suppliers play any role in helping with those issues?

At this campus, here on our site, it’s not just our production plant, we have what we call Team Texas, with our on-site suppliers. We have a great group of on-site suppliers here that give us just-in-time production. But when we can’t produce all our parts in this facility, we still have parts that come from across North America and some that come from across the globe. And of course the pandemic has caused interruptions. As we’ve seen different states and municipalities have put in place different orders to prevent virus spread. In some cases that’s interrupted our production of some of those parts. 

The good news for us is that this isn’t our first rodeo with parts interruptions. In 2011, people may remember the Great Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, we had a lot of our suppliers who were in that region, and it interrupted our production. And we learned from that crisis. We learned that we needed to diversify our geographic location of our suppliers. We needed to have multiple suppliers for key components- and that’s been really important as we’ve worked through this pandemic. 

We’ve had a few interruptions and we’ve had some situations where we’ve had to reduce overtime, but it hasn’t been as significant as you might think. A lot of that’s been because of the diversity, because we’re really focused on localizing suppliers wherever we can- and communication. We’re all about communication. We are constantly communicating to our suppliers, to our network- trying to understand any time we might have a concern, an interruption, so we can put a backup plan in place to get those parts. In all, it has not been so severe- every day our production control people are working hard to make sure we have everything covered, so we’ve been able to keep up.

Is there anything else that’s happened this year that makes you hopeful for what’s to come for Toyota Texas?

One of the unexpected benefits we’ve seen from the pandemic is what you and I are doing right now, with this virtual interview. At Toyota, we have two core values. One is respect for people- and really, some of the things we did with protocol, with the pandemic, is about respect for people- and the other is continuous improvement. That’s our other core value. One of the fundamental requirements is ‘Genchi Genbutsu,’ or go and see, which means we go to the production floor and see the problem. 

So when we came back to work in May, we recognized we couldn’t do that the way we have always done. We can’t go out and spend time side by side looking at things the way we did before, and from a perspective like our engineers and administrator groups, some of those folks were working from home. We implemented some remote work so we can really make sure we’re minimizing the number of people who have to be here. That means we had to figure out how to use virtual tools for Genchi Genbutsu, for go-and-see, so we could use that as our foundation; and the result has been really amazing. I talk about virtual live stream or tours and even North America-wide, we’re sharing information from plant to plant, through these virtual live streams- like, in the moment, on a dime, in a way historically we would have to plan a trip, get on a plane and fly to Mississippi or visit a plant, now we can get on and share information. 

And that means we’re problem-solving faster, and we’re able to communicate best practices and adopt them faster. I think this is going to make us more competitive. And I don’t think we ever would have considered this, based on that foundation of Genchi Genbutsu, if not for this pandemic. And it’s going to help us be a better vehicle production maker and it’s going to make sure we’re getting the best quality vehicles out. And in the middle of this pandemic, with everything else going on, we won a JD Power award for Initial Quality Survey for the full-size truck, the Tundra, that we build here. That award is coveted in a non-pandemic year. That’s the thing we’re working towards every year because that is the survey that tells us customer feedback. We won that this year, in the middle of a pandemic- just another way we keep our mind on the task, stay focused, work on vehicle quality, and that’s what it’s all about. So that’s been pretty exciting for us too.

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