THE most common reply among many management circles to that question is benchmarking, or to learn from organizations with world-class practices. That’s an obvious reason.
Of course, for companies that don’t allow visits, oftentimes the obvious reason is that they fear losing their trade secrets, or whatever they think is their secret or whatever is left of it.
There are also not-so-obvious reasons why plant visits happen, which may be summed up in this thought – “if you have it, then flaunt it.” To a male chauvinist pig, it means something else – “when life gives you curves, flaunt them.”
Seriously, companies allow the general public to have access to their production plants because they want to titillate the minds of their customers about how their products are made. It is one strategic form of public relations, social corporate responsibility and marketing maneuver all rolled into one, often involving the giving away of generous freebies to visiting customers.
Plant tours also happen when companies allow visits by college students, if not clueless grade schoolers and high school students who are the main target market for their particular type of products or services, like what you can imagine in the case of soft drink companies and snacks manufacturers.
If such is the case, then you still wonder why some companies don’t allow factory visits, except by industry auditors, suppliers, labor inspectors, and of course, their major clients who can’t be refused. One reason may be that these companies have not achieved much. They have nothing to show. So, let’s leave it that.
Understandably, factory tours don’t happen between competitors. The nearest case to that happened in 1986 between General Motors Framingham and Toyota Takaoka, which was made possible only because it was the subject of a magnificent opus by James Womack, Daniel Jones and Daniel Roos in “The Machine that Changed the World” (1990, 2007).
Such independent benchmarking research done by the three authors was to pit GM’s mass production versus Toyota’s lean system. They claim “it was easy to calculate a gross productivity comparison, dividing the number of hours worked by all plant employees by the number of vehicles produced” as shown in the table below: (see table below)
This comparative study with some data from IMVP World Assembly Plant Survey shows that the Toyota Takaoka plant “was almost twice as productive and three times as accurate as Framingham in performing the same set of standard activities on (a) standard car” at least at the time when the study was made.
For many people, the primary objective of a plant tour is to learn and expand one’s horizons. To see is to believe. Unfortunately, it’s not easy. For one, you can’t simply send a proposal to a company that you wish to visit, much more if it’s a competitor. Don’t even think about it if you want to hear the sound of their silence, if not the facial smirk of their managers.
The truth of the matter is – it’s best not to visit competitors because you want to get out of the industry box and you don’t want to be confined into an old, if not obsolete, system.
The best approach is to learn from other industries, like in the case of Jollibee visiting a manufacturing plant like Toyota and its much-vaunted Toyota Production System, or even a banking institution like the Bank of Philippine islands, which is strongly supported by its Total Quality Office.
Given the GM-Toyota figures as stated above, the best way still is to forget the numerical comparison but instead, to focus on actual practice. The question is this: what makes Toyota and its lean production system tick around the world?
Along with some clients, we visited the Toyota Motomachi plant in Nagoya in November 2016. One thing that sticks to my mind from that visit, among other things, is that such kaizen powerhouse receives an average of 23,000 employee ideas per year. Do you wish to achieve the same number? You may not at the moment, but you sure will in the future if you start asking them now.
The best approach from this example is, focus on how Toyota is motivating its workforce to come up with such ideas, even in the absence of a lucrative reward.
Really, a plant tour is an exciting way to learn from others.
Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts.