The andon board and stopwatches prove this is not a typical Internet venture.
When customer calls threaten to overwhelm the temporary staffer members at Gazoo's help-line center, the lights flash on the andon board. In a Toyota factory, that's the signal that a section of the line needs help, and team leaders rush to the scene. It is the same here. A member of the Gazoo development staff drops what he is doing and helps answer the phone.
A stopwatch is used to measure time between computer-mouse 'clicks,' to determine when the flow of customer calls requires the services of an additional computer server. 'The Toyota Production System is alive at Gazoo,' said Gazoo.com general manager Shigeki Tomoyama.
The mix of Old Economy factory-floor techniques and New Economy business style is a natural outgrowth of Gazoo's origins. In 1996, Toyota formed Team Customer Satisfaction to introduce Toyota Production System methods to Toyota's dealers in Japan. The team's mission: Improve dealers' cash flow. Toyota could assemble a car in just six hours, but it was another 40 days before it was delivered to a customer and a dealer would receive payment. The goal was to reduce that time by more than 10 days.
Akio Toyoda, the oldest son of Shoichiro Toyoda, the company's honorary chairman, led the team. He spent five years learning about Toyota's production methods in the company's fabled Operations Management Consulting Division, first set up by manufacturing expert Taiichi Ohno. Gazoo's Tomoyama learned production methods there as well before moving on to training in information technologies. Toyoda soon realized tapping the Internet's potential could help dealers enormously. But there was no budget for that. So he dipped into his own pocket to fund a skunk works operation. Because the group could not afford to buy fancy computers, it built 50 of its own. One of those 50 is still used, perhaps the only Toyota-brand computer in the world.
The team achieved its goals, reducing the time before a dealer receives payment for a car by 25 to 26 days. In line with the Toyota Production System, Gazoo heavily relies on suppliers and temporary workers to level the workload. Of the 70 staffers at its headquarters in an office tower atop Nagoya station, only 32 are full-time Toyota employees. The others are temporary workers, especially in the call center. Toyota also uses workers on loan from vendors such as Microsoft, Fujitsu and other high-tech companies.
Tomoyama declined to predict how many staffers Gazoo would have by year's end, noting that Toyota's objective is never to increase its payroll. This could be a hindrance: Tomoyama predicted the workload would rise tenfold this year. Staffers in the development section are putting in enormous amounts of overtime and 'don't get enough sleep,' he said.
In that environment, Toyota's traditional, seniority-based personnel policies are a liability. 'To motivate employees, some reform of the Toyota personnel system may be needed,' he said. Although he wouldn't quite say so directly, Tomoyama implied Gazoo may need to offer stock options as part of an employee incentive plan. That would require an initial public offering of Gazoo.com, something Toyota Chairman Hiroshi Okuda has hinted is possible.
Thanks to Gazoo, stock options may join stopwatches as part of the Toyota culture.