Japan Quality Tour 2024

A Journey Through Time – Japan Quality Tour in 1980



The DHI Industrial Quality tours of Japan began in 1980 following our hugely successful conference held at the Institute of Directors in London and co-chaired by Professor Ishikawa. Key supporting speakers, apart from our David Hutchins who organised the event, included Professor Sasaki, Rt Hon Reginald Eyre (UK Minister for Industry), Admiral Spikernell (President of the UK Defence Quality Assurance Board), and Walter Goldsmith (Chairman of Black and Decker).

There were about 30 persons in our group, which comprised my wife and myself, as well as a variety of Post Graduate Students and three professors from Delft University in Holland.

Over three weeks, our itinerary included visits to Nissan, Honda, Toyota, Komatsu and others, resulting in some extraordinary experiences.


Japan Guided Tour through the Toyota Assembly Line – An Insider’s View

Our group was treated to a series of escorted tours across Japan, offering us a unique glimpse into the country’s industrial prowess.  Among the many visits, one that stood out was our trip to a Toyota Assembly Plant near Nagoya.

The plant is designed to accommodate over a million visitors annually without disrupting production. They had constructed a mezzanine walkway that ran the length of the factory a few feet above the assembly lines.

As we walked through the walkway, I noticed a commercial open backed truck containing assembled engines backed up to the line. It stopped a foot or so away between guides. A hoist was then lowered and the bottom left-hand corner engine was slung to the hoist, lifted and swiveled over the assembly line. This coincided with the arrival of one of the vehicles on the track.

The engine was lowered into the vehicle guided by four (4) industrial workers who then proceeded to fix it into the chassis. The sling was then attached to the next engine on the truck and the process repeated.

The timing of the cycle was perfectly in balance with the speed of the production line. As though that was not incredible enough, we then noticed that there were several different designs of vehicles on the line and different designs of engines on the truck. However, the sequence for both was identical.


Discovering the Heart of Japan’s Industry

When the truck was empty, it moved away to be replaced by the next one that had just arrived. The experience immediately posed the question, ‘How did they do that?’ We imagined that there must be a queue of vehicles waiting outside with others driving around. We learnt that there were none.

The engine manufacturing plant was not far from the Assembly plant and the vehicles came directly from the production line. We assumed that perhaps the engine manufacturer held stocks of engines and may have loaded them on the trucks according to orders received on that day.

Our journey continued the next day with a tour of the engine manufacturer. To our amazement, he had no stock. This challenged our conventional understanding of manufacturing. The engines were being manufactured in mixed designs according to the schedule supplied by Toyota.

Apparently, they knew ten days in advance of the production mix and the precise order of manufacture. This would not change. In addition, they had a further ten days’ warning, but this schedule could be changed.  Perhaps there would be inventory further back in the process?


NGK Spark Plugs: A Study in Efficiency

A further highlight of our tour was the visit to NGK Spark Plugs, where the contrast with familiar manufacturing environments was clearly apparent. The volume of production of the NGK plant was nearly double that of the British plant, but the size of the factory was an estimated 25% in floor space.

In the British factory there was ‘in process stock’ (so-called work-in-progress, as far as the eye could see), probably millions of UK pounds sterling of stock in all stages of completion. However, there was none in the NGK plant! Bear in mind that this was 1980!

The end-to-end process in the NGK plant, from raw materials to finished goods, was a masterclass in lean manufacturing, serving the needs of giants, such as Toyota and Nissan, with unmatched precision.

At the end of the production line, there was a huge silo of porcelain powder. This fed into a machine that mixed it with water and presumably other additives to create what is known as slip. This is like damp clay and malleable.

The slip is then piped into moulds which contain the central electrode of the sparking plug continuously. The plug then travels in a line end-to-end with its neighbours, through a tunnel kiln, it is spray glazed, then fired again through another tunnel kiln to the final operations. The small nut to attach to the high-tension leads is finally attached before the completed plug is indexed into its packing box at the end of the line.

The boxes were automatically stacked into unit loads, shrink-wrapped and palletised. When the pallet was full, it was loaded into a waiting truck which then transported them to Toyota, Nissan or whoever was the customer. There was neither work-in-progress nor incoming goods stock, other than that for immediate use, and there were no finished goods.


Reflections on Japan’s Manufacturing Mastery

The realisation that an automobile comprises some 30,000 parts, all managed with such meticulous care, was proof of the extraordinary capabilities of companies like Toyota.

To think that Toyota had achieved this level of sophistication over 40 years ago prior to writing this article indicated the size of the gap that must exist between that manufacturing system and others more familiar in the rest of the world.

Witnessing the application of principles like SMED (Single Minute Exchange of Dies) further reinforced the notion that Japan’s manufacturing sector was decades ahead of its time. What is more, is that they had achieved all these from a near standing start in 1960!


The Future: Japan Tours in 2024

As we anticipate our next Japan Tour in May 2024 with me and one of the UK’s top voices in quality management, Kola Olutimehin, you will have the chance to see Japan’s TQM methods in action firsthand and meet with other learners from the David Hutchins International Quality College (DHIQC). Learn more about joining the Japan Quality Tour here

Remember, the advancements in Japan’s manufacturing techniques remain a subject of great intrigue. To be part of this year’s Japan quality tour, kindly register your interest through the registration link below:


See you at the JAPAN TOUR 2024!