Toyota Production System Support Center (TSSC) is a division within Toyota that exists to share the carmaker’s renowned manufacturing knowhow across North America.

How the maker of the famous Aeron chair discovered new ways to streamline their manufacturing operations

by Sabrina Corsiga, Special Contributor | October 22, 2019

While the name “Herman Miller” may not ring a bell for you, it’s more than likely that you’re familiar with some of its products. The furniture-maker’s iconic designs — such as the ubiquitous Aeron office chair and the timelessly stylish Eames chair — have been a part of many Americans’ work lives for decades and are famous across the globe for their quality and comfort.

As a 100-plus-year-old year company, Herman Miller isn’t a stranger to revolutionary production thinking. With a commitment to high-quality design and reliability, they’ve operated in the home and office furnishing markets since the 1930s and hold major industry firsts under their belt. Herman Miller was the first to develop the idea of office furniture systems products in the 1960s and have been leaders in ergonomic seating.

Despite these industry successes, however, Herman Miller has faced their share of tough business challenges over the years. One of the turning points in their business came when a major customer asked for lower prices and reduced lead time on the production of one of the company’s popular metal filing cabinets. Leaving these demands unmet meant potentially closing the plant that produced the cabinets, which would have affected the company’s employees and the local economy.

Challenged by a tight 10-day lead time and only two assembly lines with 126 workers running on three shifts, Herman Miller turned to special unit within Toyota called the Toyota Production System Support Center (TSSC) for insights and assistance. 

Toyota shares its secret sauce

TSSC is a division within Toyota that exists to share the carmaker’s renowned manufacturing know-how across North America. By teaching nonprofits and businesses the Toyota Production System philosophy TSSC helps them tackle operational problems, maximize available resources, improve quality or safety, streamline production lead times and preserve or even create more jobs. 

By implementing the Toyota Production System, Herman Miller was able to adjust its manufacturing operation by integrating multiple assembly lines into one and reducing assembly changeover to produce materials one by one. Productivity tripled, and jobs that might have disappeared were preserved.

“The transformation in the plant was so dramatic that the rest of our company said, ‘Hey, we need to embrace this across all of our operations,’” says Matt Long, VP of Continuous Improvement at Herman Miller. “They helped us build a capability within that plant that then ended up becoming our core capability within our entire organization.” 

Evolving customer demands require new ways of doing business

In recent years, Herman Miller’s business has become more complex and challenging due to higher customer demand for variety in their furniture choices. As a result, Herman Miller has once again engaged with Toyota on a deeper level to meet those demands.

“We needed to find a way to adjust our production systems to meet the ever-changing customer needs, and once again turned to Toyota for guidance,” Long says.

Long credits Toyota with helping Herman Miller make small but impactful changes that helped them become a company known not only for their excellent products, but also for their operational excellence and reliability.

“The numbers basically show that today, we’re producing the same dollar volume worth of product that we did in 1996, but with 60 percent less building and equipment,” Long says. “We were able to take those savings and deploy it back into the business and invest back into our employees. But Toyota wasn’t just developing a system on the floor — they were developing us as people, which I think is a really big key to the way that they do their work.”

This people-centered philosophy is one of the reasons that, as a condition of their partnerships with businesses, TSSC requires organizations to agree that no employees will be let go because of improvement activities. Instead, people are utilized in other positions in the company.

“We really look back at [the Toyota partnership] as being a turning point in our business,” Long says. “We consider it an honor to have the working relationship that we do with Toyota, because we know they are the benchmark of the world for continuous improvement and quality and the value of people.”

Knowledge-sharing is key

As a second condition for engagement, TSSC requires top level management support and looks for organizations to champion TPS beyond their company. That is just what Herman Miller has done.

“We have a constant stream of folks coming to visit us to see a working example of TPS outside the auto industry,” Long says. “We’ve also loaned one of our team members to a local hospital for two years. And then there are some local nonprofits, including one called Kids Food Basket, who we helped expand the scope of their operation with the same amount of resources that they had. Toyota has set a really good example for us in that sense.”

TSSC operates on this philosophy of open knowledge-sharing in order to help their partners stay competitive in order to preserve jobs or support more people in need.

“Toyota engages other organizations with our know-how so that they can build a culture of continuous improvement,” says Jamie Bonini, vice president of TSSC. “The folks at Herman Miller took the time to learn Toyota’s process and philosophy and made it their own. Now they’re sharing that valuable know-how with others. That is a gift that keeps giving.”

Partner with TSSC 

Toyota is looking for businesses in the D-FW area that could benefit from its philosophy of continuous improvement and knowledge-sharing. Learn more about TSSC and apply for support by filling out the General Industry Support Request form. For more information, visit www.tssc.com.

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