Brett Wood M&T

Culture Is King at Toyota Forklifts

June 12, 2018
Toyota’s Brett Wood explains how a culture of safety and open, honest communication drives continuous improvement throughout the company.

Brett Wood has taken a quite circuitous journey to his role today as president and CEO of forklift manufacturer Toyota Material Handling North America (TMHNA). In his career, which includes a stay at Northrop Grumman before joining Toyota in the late 1980s, he’s worn any number of hats, having held positions in engineering, marketing, training, strategic planning, dealer development and ultimately, senior management.

TMHNA is comprised of three main group companies: Toyota Material Handling U.S.A. Inc. (TMHU), Toyota Industrial Equipment Mfg. Inc. (TIEM), and The Raymond Corporation. Together, the TMHNA companies produce an average of 1,620 forklifts per week, and reportedly one in three forklifts sold in North America is either a Toyota or Raymond product. So Wood has plenty on his plate in his daily role at Toyota.

But it doesn’t stop there. Throughout his career Wood has been heavily involved in supporting and leading the trade associations he’s been a part of. That includes chairmanship of the Industrial Truck Association (ITA), participating on the manufacturers board of advisors for the Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association (MHEDA), and his current role as the president of the Material Handling Institute (MHI).

He has also been very generous with his time with the business press, and we caught up with him at the MODEX 2018 show in Atlanta to gain an insight into his management of the largest North American producer of lift trucks.

MH&L: How were you first introduced to the Toyota Production System and the concepts of lean manufacturing and continuous improvement? Were you aware of them before you joined Toyota?

Brett Wood: I’ve been at Toyota for almost 29 years, and you’re the first person who’s ever asked me that. The answer is no, I wasn’t a lean guy, but to stretch the thought process behind the question, in terms of continuous improvement, yes.

There’s a story behind it. My father was a mechanical engineer at Kodak in Rochester, NY. When you grow up in a house where there’s an engineering mind and thought process, you’re always fixing something as opposed to hiring somebody to fix something, even when you probably should’ve hired someone. So that’s how my father was and that’s how I am. If you can fix it, fix it. That kind of thought process was ingrained in me at an early age.

At Kodak, my father designed cameras, and I remember how he would bring prototypes home at night as he was trying out new designs. When I was at Cornell, he let me come in with a couple students and do a study on his work from a design point of view, and what I was fascinated about was they had to revolutionize—disrupt—the film market and come up with a thin film, which was the disc that rotates inside. It didn’t sell well, but it got awards and he got a patent because of the whole process that went into its design. It was that continuous improvement idea that was kind of embedded in my thought process.

After Cornell I went to Northrop Grumman Aerospace. I can’t say we were involved in lean, but in aerospace you’re always trying to come up with the next best thing, or something that’s better and safer for whatever you’re designing.

MH&L: What prompted you to leave Northrop and go to Toyota?

Wood: At Northrop, after leaving Cornell with an engineering degree, they were getting into advanced high-tech. For a young engineer, that was like a playground. I loved it. They had unlimited budgets, and we were doing things with fluid dynamics and heat transfer. It was really interesting and technical, but it was one engineer passing work to me and then I’d pass it on to the next engineer. And after five years, I wanted to work more as part of a team and that’s when I landed at Toyota Forklift. I was the first American engineer hired by Toyota. It was all Japanese until then. And here I am 28 years later, with no regrets.

When I got to Toyota the culture just fed my curiosity and I remember that people would leave at 5:00 and I’d be there till 8:00 with a couple Japanese engineers just talking about lean. They called me Mr. Curious because I was always asking questions, which is good because in the Toyota Production System you want to ask “why” five times. So I never had any formal training in lean until I got to Toyota, and then when I got there it was like music to my ears—it was about eliminating waste, and promoting a culture where management and employees are focused on always trying to do something better, and then good things happen from that. I’m still learning. That’s what’s neat about it.

But it takes time. A lean culture doesn’t happen overnight. It starts at the top, with all the management, and they’ve got to walk the talk to show that it’s important to the company—that whole spirit of continuous improvement. It’s not just something that we’ll talk about on Mondays, and then talk about something else, and then talk about it again the following Monday.

MH&L: You’ve held a number of positions in various areas of the company, from engineering to marketing to training to strategic planning to dealer development. How did working in these different, and not always overlapping, areas help prepare you for taking on a senior leadership role with Toyota?

Wood: You know who deserves credit for that is Shankar Basu [former chairman and CEO of TMHNA] because he also has an engineering degree, but he was also very strong in marketing and management. So he saw my career trajectory, and I think he decided, “Let’s get him in front of people and see how he does.” And one thing led to another. Toyota is a very product-centric company. There are other companies that probably lead with marketing; I would say Toyota leads with product. I think that made it possible for me to make that transition a little bit easier.

I remember complaining once to my wife, “Every two years they keep putting me in a different position. I’m getting frustrated. I started a project and I want to see it to the end, and now they’ve moved me over to dealer development, and then they moved me over to strategic planning, and then training, and then sales.” And now looking back 20 years later, I can see that it was brilliant that someone had the good foresight to steer my career in that direction, or maybe they were just lucky.

Promotion from within is a big part of Toyota’s culture, and I continue that. The experience I’ve had in each area has been tremendously helpful. I couldn’t be as successful or as engaged as I am today without that. I can walk into any meeting at Toyota and Raymond right now and have a good understanding of what’s going on in any meeting. I think that’s helped me relate to challenges that people have.

If I were to sit back and think of some of my weaknesses, if there’s a tough decision to be made about a certain area of the company, I’ll think about what’s right for the company, but I’ll probably weigh in more than I should what’s right for the people involved. “You know what, Frank’s been working on that project for 10 years and if we just pull it away from him, he’s gonna go nuts.” That could be construed as a weakness, or a strength, I don’t know. It’s in my thought process for sure.

Our culture is so family-oriented that having been in all these different departments has helped me relate to what our employees are going through.

MH&L: What strategies and tactics work best in motivating employees to constantly strive for continuous improvement? To have the kind of culture you’re talking about, how do you keep it going?

Wood: We have a formal process called TIBP—Toyota Industries Business Practices. It’s basically an 8-step process, and we have a formal training class that people take, and they’re simple principles about how you can plan—planning is the key word—and reduce the amount of time it takes to accomplish something, going back to the core principles of reducing waste, eliminating muda and all that.

Culture is king. So when you want to motivate associates or employees, if you don’t have the culture, no matter how much money you throw at them—“Come up with 10 kaizen ideas and we’ll give you $50 or a Starbucks card or something.” I’m not a big fan of that, although I can see the merit of it. But if you don’t have the general culture of continuous improvement all the time, those little rewards won’t have the impact that they should.

You also need really open, honest and informal communication. If you’re trying to motivate someone, they want to feel that they’re part of the process. If all you do is just tell them “Good job” every now and then, that’s not making them part of the process. A little constructive criticism goes a long way, too. That’s part of our honest culture too.

Also, at our company there are no bad ideas. We tell our people: bring anything you’ve got to your manager, to the table, to the group, and let’s hear it out. One thing I’m really proud of is we recognize kaizen ideas no matter how big or small. So if you saved us a dollar, we’ll recognize you as much as the person who saved us $100 or $1,000. I think that motivates people who might otherwise think, “Well, I don’t have a big idea so I’m not going to think about it.”

The culture of little steps and little improvements will lead you as a group to large improvements. Some companies try to only hit home runs, to get that gigantic idea that, say, saves how much steel they’re going to buy every month. That’s muda in itself. In baseball, you can’t hit a home run every time, you need a few singles and doubles every once in a while. It doesn’t have to be a large big process every time.

MH&L: What role does Toyota play, as the market leader, in driving towards forklift safety initiatives throughout the company, and throughout the industry? And how do you get your employees to take ownership for maintaining a culture of safety?

Wood: This will be the fifth year for National Forklift Safety Day. I’m really pleased to see how that’s grown. To have our competitors come together and rally around one topic, that’s pretty unique. When I retire, that’ll be one neat thing that’ll hopefully be a legacy that’s still going on.

There are a half million people driving forklifts every day. 500,000 people are deemed forklift operators according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a lot of people that need to be safety trained. So Toyota, and our competitors too, we all recognize the importance of operator training. There are still about 100 people a year who die in forklift accidents, but accidents have been reduced tremendously thanks to our relationship with OSHA through the Industrial Truck Association (ITA), and our emphasis on safety training.

In terms of our employees at our factories, we have a dojo safety training area in our Columbus, Ind., factory. New employees learn how to pick up a box, turn a wrench properly with your arm and not your wrist, and how to watch out for sharp edges. It’s a pictorial wall of exercises and do’s and don’ts. It starts simple, but as you go through it the examples get more complicated. Every new employee has to go through the dojo before they’re allowed on the factory floor.

In terms of maintaining a safety culture, the first topic at every staff meeting is safety. No matter who is in the room, and even if we just broke records on sales last month, we’ll start with safety. So that sends a message.

On the technology side, there’s going to be collision avoidance some day on forklifts. It’s expensive right now, but it’s going to come, and maybe as soon as the next five years or so.

Raymond right now is using virtual reality to train their workers on operating a forklift. That’s exciting. We piloted and tested it at Amazon, and they love it because this VR training allows them to quickly get someone trained. Maybe not perfect, but safer than they were before.

MH&L: How would you define your leadership style?

Wood: I like to lead by example. I wouldn’t ask anyone to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. That’s really important to me. I’ve walked in their shoes, and I really feel like I lead by example.

I want to lead by open and honest communication. I had a sales manager years ago say, “Brett, you’re the most honest person in Toyota.” And I took that as a huge compliment. And he laughed, saying, “I’m a sales guy, I’m the most dishonest person here.” But we were in a customer meeting, and I just told them like it was, and he said to me, “You probably didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear, but they really respected you because you told them the truth about everything—lead times, pricing, whatever.” And I told him, that’s just the way I am, I’m never going to change that. If you want me to come into a meeting and say something that’s not true, don’t bring me to that meeting.”

You need to be consistent and lead in your professional life, and the same in your personal life. It’s little things. You don’t curse. You don’t talk bad about somebody on the phone. If I’m at a cocktail party or a charity event or a soccer game, I always feel like I’m representing Toyota. Toyota is the sixth most recognizable brand in the world, and so I take that role very seriously.

I try to foster an environment for group decisions, by encouraging input from everyone, no matter what their title is. I’m famous for having more people in a meeting than probably needed, but those people will then leave the meeting feeling they were part of whatever decision was made in the meeting. At the end of every meeting, I’ll go around the table and if somebody didn’t say anything during the meeting, and it’s probably a junior member of the team, I’ll ask them if they have anything else to add. It’s an opportunity for a quiet or shy person to add something. I’ve been told that people really like the environment I create by having everyone be involved.

Also, there’s the genchi genbutsu principle of “go and see with your own eyes.” I don’t just ask people, “How are you doing?” because everybody says, “Fine.” I ask, “What are you working on today?” or “If you were in charge here, what would you do to make your job easier?” I love those kinds of questions, especially with the Millennials. You get some real interesting answers. So “listening at all levels” is a phrase that describes what I try to do.

About the Author

Dave Blanchard | Senior Director of Content

During his career Dave Blanchard has led the editorial management of many of Endeavor Business Media's best-known brands, including IndustryWeek, EHS Today, Material Handling & Logistics, Logistics Today, Supply Chain Technology News, and Business Finance. He also serves as senior content director of the annual Safety Leadership Conference. With over 30 years of B2B media experience, Dave literally wrote the book on supply chain management, Supply Chain Management Best Practices (John Wiley & Sons, 2021), which has been translated into several languages and is currently in its third edition. He is a frequent speaker and moderator at major trade shows and conferences, and has won numerous awards for writing and editing. He is a voting member of the jury of the Logistics Hall of Fame, and is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.

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