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02/03

THE WATCH MEN

In the second of three visits, Monocle meets more of the takumi of Lexus. The highly-skilled staff are masters of kansei: the Japanese word refers to a sensitivity, an ability, to perceive things that most people would miss. That’s what Lexus expects of its factory workers.

They must feel for vibrations or listen for rattles that they know shouldn’t be there. They are trained to spot things that aren’t quite right – the positioning of a part, for instance, even if it’s only off by a few millimetres. The importance Lexus places on kansei reflects the company’s core philosophy. It assumes that no machine can make the perfect car – only people. It leaves the hardest part of car production – the inspections, tiniest adjustments and intuitive fixes to people – the takumi. It’s what sets a Lexus apart from any other car.

01


TOSHIMITSU TANAKA


AGE: 53


EXPERTISE: VEHICLE ASSEMBLY


YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 35


Tanaka has worked assembly-line shifts his entire career. He began his journey at Lexus in charge of the chassis, before moving on to the process of preparing new models for production. In this role, Tanaka was responsible for deciding which parts would be assembled in what order, to ensure the new model line would run as smoothly as possible.

As the vehicle assembly takumi, Tanaka now leads a crew that puts the finishing touches on the parts that have been completed by their colleagues at the press, body and painting stations. They bolt on doors and wheels, attach headlights, insert the dashboard and connect electronic circuitry – all told there are 350 steps in this section. What they do requires dedication, artistry, precision and speed – enough of each to acquire the Lexus Skill Certification. They get only two minutes per car for each process. And yet, all 2,800 parts must align and connect precisely – exactly as detailed on the original blueprints, and assembled to the strictest of standards. “It is my responsibility to make sure that each worker maintains their skill set at the same level as when they first acquired their certification. To make sure of this, I check their work with my own eyes every day, and give them personal advice and instruction,” he says. This process of handing down knowledge from personal experience refines the process – ensuring Lexus vehicles are built with consistently high precision.

02


SUMIMASA TAKEDA


AGE: 58


EXPERTISE: PLASTICS PAINTING


YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 40


Takeda loves talking about car bumpers. During his his career of 39 years, he has witnessed the entire evolution of the bumper – from polished chrome to black urethane to body concoloured plastic resin. Now the bumper is designed bigger than ever but it’s also less conspicuous. It has become a seamless part of the car body, meaning the quality of the paint job is more crucial than it has ever been. At Lexus, the shade and sheen of every bumper and the rocker moulding must match the car body exactly. Takeda’s job is to teach his expertise to newcomers. “When you’re painting, the results are right there to see,” says takumi Takeda. “If the work is top-notch it shows. If you let quality slip that shows too.”

Takeda trains his team with enthusiasm. The goal is for every worker to become a master takumi of plastics spray painting. Why bother if new robots can do much of the work? Because the robots aren’t perfect, says Takeda. He teaches his crew how to produce an even coat: by holding the paint gun at the right angle and distance while briskly walking back and forth. It’s hard not to get uneven lumps when you’re adding one wet layer after the next. Each coat is measured in microns – and it can take months or years of practice to perfect the technique. When Monocle visits, one of Takeda’s youngest workers has just passed his first test. Other managers watch a video back. They scrutinise his form, timing, technique and speed, and simultaneously run a video of the best of the group as a reference. It’s not unlike how Olympic athletes improve their game.

Inspections in the paint shop are a serious business too. Every bumper and moulding is inspected by Takeda’s crew under the glow of fluorescent bulbs. They look for flecks of dust or fine strands of lint or hair. Just to be sure there’s a colour calibration machine, which gauges how closely the bumper or moulding matches that of the rest of the car. They rarely have to use it.

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03


HIROFUMI KOGA


AGE: 53


EXPERTISE: PLASTICS MOULDING


YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 34


Koga wants one thing from the plastics moulding team: absolute perfection. Every four months, he tests their skills. Anybody who doesn’t complete the task flawlessly has to sit again. To chart their progress, Koga has a board with photos of every member of his crew – newcomers at the bottom and the takumi, with Koga, at the top. He put it there to motivate everyone to be better. “The training is an essential part of what we do here,” says Koga. “No matter how much you automate this factory, it’s the people who must stand behind the quality of the cars.”
Koga’s role is mainly as manager, but once a month, to keep his own skills sharp, he jumps into the line and trains. Koga didn’t start off here. More than three decades ago he was doing engine research and development, but every few years he moved on to a new area until he had mastered every job. He knows how crucial perfection is at every station.
Piecing together the dashboard is his team’s biggest task. You can tell a lot by the look and feel of a dashboard, says Koga. “The dashboard sits right in the driver’s line of sight so the slightest problems will be visible,” he says.
That’s why he sweats the details – the pale foam inside the dashboard, the stitching along its edges, the fine grain of its exterior, the faint lines where the airbag will go. Just by running his gloved hands over the surface he can tell whether there’s uneven swelling of the foam inside – they’re imperfections smaller than a millimetre that nobody else would notice. Every member of his inspection team must learn the technique. There’s a high tech machine nearby to check for holes but Koga thinks that human hands are far more reliable.
His staff talk about him in awe. But Koga wants everyone on his team to be just as vigilant about rooting out these tiny imperfections. His mission: “To groom the next takumi,” Koga says.

04


HIDEYA SEGAWA


AGE: 52


EXPERTISE: VEHICLE INSPECTION


YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 33


Performance is the ultimate test of a Lexus and HideyaSegawa has the final say. He knows every part by heart and can quickly track a squeak, smell or vibration to its problematic source.
He expects the same of his battalion of inspectors. They put every Lexus coming off the production line through a series of tests on simulators and machines. Segawa trains them to ask the right questions: Is the steering true? Are the headlights angled correctly? Does the car brake, accelerate and turn as it’s supposed to? Is the impact prevention technology effective? Are there any fluid leaks? Will the seals on the doors last a lifetime?
Gadgetry helps. A hypersensitive microphone placed inside the car while it’s accelerating and braking in a chamber might pick up a noise that shouldn’t be there. Another contraption spins the wheels on a surface that simulates a bumpy ride. But Segawa teaches inspectors to rely on their own finely tuned senses, not gadgetry, when trying to pinpoint glitches. “The most important thing for an inspector is kansei,” says Segawa. “No matter how many machines you use for testing, humans are better at finding something that isn’t right.”
That’s why Segawa puts every trainee through hours of listening drills on a computer. By the end they can identify every sound in the car – the propeller, the gear shift, the axle. Of course, the best place to catch problems is from the driver’s seat. No Lexus leaves without a few laps on the 4km test track. Drivers take the cars over cobblestones, concrete and ropes to check handling, suspension and noise. Finally, inspectors scan every surface, every door, bonnet and boot to ensure it’s flawless.
One key lesson from the Segawa textbook: Be a good listener.”We ask ourselves, ‘What does the car sound like as it slices through air?'” he says. “Of course, a Lexus is designed to stay quiet. When you’re inside, you won’t hear much.”

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