News and views on motorsports

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Toyota Way

Last night I watched a repeat of the documentary called Anatomy Of A Formula 1 Team that was shown on Discovery channel. The documentary featured the Toyota F1 team and highlighted various aspects of the operations of a modern grand prix racing team. Track testing, design, manufacturing and logistics were some of the topics covered on it. The documentary featured events prior to the 2006 Canadian Grand Prix.

One thing that was repeatedly emphasized was the Toyota Way embodied by the Toyota Production System (TPS). This incorporate the Kaizen philosophy, which is Toyota's process of continuous evolution and improvement. The idea being taken from management guru W Edward Demming. At the time the documentary was made Mike Gascoyne had already been sacked (oops, I should say voluntarily parted company) and replaced by Pascal Vesselon, formerly of Michelin.

You get the impression that the whole Toyota F1 team is organised using the TPS principles, which had been proven successful in the design and manufacture of Toyota road cars. One gets the impression that the team exists to validate Toyota's methodologies. As Patrick had pointed out, the whole project seems like some sort of corporate flagship exercise. A big promotion exercise if you will with the Toyota Way being the product ultimately on display. Success in grand prix racing if achieved, would serve as a parade of its superiority both on the track and on the road.

So, the question is after billions spent and some 5 years in grand prix racing, why hasn't it worked out? Never mind championships, even a grand prix win has not been achieved. Although the team has come close. There is very little doubt that the Toyota way has been very successful in producing road cars. To some, the Toyota production line is among the very best in the world, if not the best. Cars are produced efficiently, cheaply and comes built in with very high quality and reliability. All the things you need to produce some of the most boring vehicles on the planet. But then Toyota knows that the average joe on the street is just looking for some boring, reliable car with huge space to stuff his shopping, the grandparents and the rugrats into. And therefore, its methodologies work there.

But could it be that the Toyota way is simply the wrong way when it comes to racing? Essentially the TPS is a design by committee methodology where everyone focuses upon his domain but with emphasis on open communication among the various groups and team members. Theoretically, why shouldn't this philosophy work? After all it had worked for Ferrari. Up until the new aero rules introduced in 2005, Formula 1 Ferraris have been constantly evolving a basic design reaching back, oh I don't know, perhaps to 1998. Some innovations were introduced here and there but it was a work of evolution rather than revolution. So why hasn't it produced magic in Toyota?

Perhaps magic is indeed the missing ingredient in the form of an excellent technical director. I hear howls of protest but bear with me a moment. The 2005 Toyota challenger was the first car under the Mike Gascoyne. It had to be all new. For with the new aero rules, a revolution was indeed the right step. I mean look at Ferrari. Whilst Luca di Montezemolo lay blame on tyres but Ross Brawn was more forthcoming. The basic design itself was wrong. It evolved the F2004 into the F2005 but the basic DNA was all wrong for survival in the new aero environment, no matter how much it was mutated. A revolutionary leap in the basic design was needed. Gascoyne produced it with Toyota, the Ferrari F2005 was basically an extinct dinosaur.

For a brief moment, the 2005 Toyota was the only match for the Renault R25 until McLaren's MP4/20 hit form. If Ferrari hadn't stolen victory at Indianapolis and if Toyota hadn't screwed up Ralf Schumacher at Spa, then for sure the team would have had their maiden win and in turn would have beaten Ferrari to third in the constructors.

So what the hell happened in 2006? Well, thats what happens when marketing idiots tamper with racing objectives. And marketing of course, is a huge thing in a road car company like Toyota. Some clever genius decided that it would be good for the team to use Bridgestone tyres for 2006, since that is the brand that is used on all Toyota road cars. The decision of course came late in the day after plans for the TF106 had already been in place and the car optimized for use with Michelin rubber. Do not underestimate the effect this had. It was enormous and no matter what Gascoyne attempted to do, it was to no avail. The car was simply unsuited to its rubber. Whatever is said of Gascoyne, I think he was made the scapegoat for the debacle.

And now the team lumbers on. Like McLaren, that other ailing Formula 1 team, the principals at Toyota believe a team approach, a design by committee arrangement is the best way and of course would fit in that holy of holies, the TPS. Now I realise, no one can do everything these days. Even 20 years ago, the thought of one superstar designer doing everything had long been banished. Gordon Murray, the man in charge of the mighty McLaren MP4/4 pointed out way back then that he never drew up the detailed blueprints of the car. At most, he sketched a few lines on a piece of paper. But I still feel a strong technical director, that is able to aggregate all the minute detailed work of others, with a clear understanding on the application of various technologies and able to provide strong design direction is still needed.

Of course, all Formula 1 teams have extremely clever people working for them. Its just that some are brighter still than the others. In the book, the Wisdom Of Crowds by James Surowiecki, the best results are apparently obtained when a group contains people of many different backgrounds, experiences and even intelligence. A group of similar minded people rarely produces the best results mainly because points of view are the same. In a group of the extremely talented then, everyone is useful from the merely smart to the Einsteins of the team.

That is the ideal situation but in small groups, it has been found that force of personality can dominate and set the direction of the group, whether it be right or wrong. The guy who talks first and most often usually drowns out everyone else, even those who may have had better answers. Situations like these have led to disasters like the NASA Columbia accident. If this is so and groups will be dominated by forceful individuals or leaders, then risky as it may be, you may just as well put the most clever person in charge of the whole group. Like a superstar designer for instance. Constant evolution is also a Ferrari philosophy but just look at the people at the helm of the technical team. Would anyone argue that Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne were key ingredients to Ferrari's unprecedented success?

Watching the documentary, I have no doubt that the Kaizen methodology at Toyota works beautifully on the production side. Once designs are approved, I wager the Toyota team can then produce a component faster, more efficiently and cheaper than any other team in the paddock. But in racing and in Formula 1 especially, speed and lap times are the ultimate priority. The design team led by a genius is key to such objectives. The Toyota Way I feel is unlikely to achieve that performance leap required by the team to be "the best ever team in Formula 1." Great at pumping out cars in volume but hey, in Formula 1 you only need two.

Toyota must break away from their current thinking. Showcasing corporate philosophies and marketing are really not the point of racing. Racing should be done for racing's sake alone with winning being the only objective. Toyota would be best served by looking at the way Renault organise. Just let the team get on with the business and stay out of their way. Thats how you win.

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