A nonprofit rebuilding houses in New Orleans cut rework orders in half through Toyota’s process improvement methods. (Photo courtesy of the St. Bernard Project) 

A giant automotive plant and a community food bank might appear to have little in common. From an engineer’s perspective, however, both are places where products make their way down an assembly line. The goal, whether it’s a new car or holiday food basket, is to get the goods to customers as efficiently as possible.

In a fresh twist on corporate citizenship, Toyota is bringing the automaker’s vaunted process improvement methods to at least 20 nonprofit organizations that are struggling to do more with limited resources. “We’re really talking about sharing a core piece of the Toyota business culture: our problem-solving method,” says Jim Wiseman, chief communications officer for Toyota Motor North America.

A nonprofit that is rebuilding houses in post-Katrina New Orleans has managed to cut rework orders by more than 50 percent since opening its operations for a look-see by Toyota engineers. Zack Rosenburg, co-founder of the St. Bernard Project, says reducing errors on plumbing, carpentry, and electrical work “allows us to optimally serve our clients. We have a limited amount of time and money. If we’re not using both efficiently, our clients are suffering.”

Although Toyota’s commitment to this initiative was announced by corporate executives at the Clinton Global Initiative in June 2011, it began in a grassroots way. Stories started circulating about individual employees who, in their off-hours, were sharing workplace expertise with good causes. For instance, a food bank cut wait time for hungry families from one hour to 15 minutes after a Toyota engineer helped improve the process for assembling food baskets. Similar stories led Toyota to realize that its culture of continuous improvement—called kaizen in Japanese—could have value for the nonprofit sector.

At the St. Bernard Project, introducing kaizen has meant analyzing inefficiencies “at a granular level,” explains Rosenburg. With Toyota’s help, he and his staff tracked rework orders during two-week periods. Categorizing mistakes helped them identify and then eliminate the most common sources of time-consuming errors. This has led to a cultural change in an organization that’s heavily dependent on volunteers, AmeriCorps staff, and goodwill. “Fear of not being efficient can lead to hiding problems,” he says. “Now we recognize these are good problems because we can fix them.” With new efficiencies in place, the time to build a house has been cut to six weeks, a 30 percent reduction.

Similar results are emerging in diverse projects. At a hospital in Pittsburgh, engineers helped design a better system to deliver pharmaceuticals to patients, freeing nurses to devote more of their time to patient care. In Kentucky, a cash-strapped county asked Toyota to suggest energy-saving measures for a 150-year-old government building. “Our folks were able to identify where heat was escaping from this beautiful historic building. By finding ways to conserve energy and use less water, they’re saving $50,000 a year. That’s a big deal in a small town,” Wiseman says.

“Every situation is unique,” he adds, “but it’s never us saying, do this or do that.” The 10 Toyota engineers assigned to this initiative are careful about taking a collaborative approach. “We don’t come in with a silver bullet,” Wiseman says. Nor is the sharing of expertise intended to replace more traditional philanthropic efforts. “We’ve always tried to do our part financially,” he adds, “and that will continue. But we think that lending our expertise is going to be a bigger and bigger piece of our collective efforts. Our employees—especially the younger generation—are community minded. If we can give them a way to add value, that’s a win-win.”

Toyota is also working with nonprofits to help them share what they are learning. “We want to come up with a model for affordably built housing that’s scalable in New Orleans and replicable in other parts of the country,” Rosenburg explains. Sharing good ideas is part of Toyota culture. “It’s called yokoten,” says Wiseman. “We’re eager to help nonprofits do more of that, too.”

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