Deming and Habraken and Toyota, Oh My!

If you have followed my posts, you have seen more than a few references to the auto industry, mostly to give evidence as to the level of efficiency and quality missing in homebuilding. My aspirations for homebuilding are wedded to the effective technology you can see under the hood of your car, to the absence of defects in the production of cars, and to the incredible efficiency that causes so much to be purchased for so little. If you compare all the dependable rolling technology you get for $15,000 when you buy a new Toyota Corolla (including chassis, engine, transmission, heat, air conditioning, plumbing, wiring, sound system, comfort seating, upholstery, perfect paint finish, power windows carpeting, air bags, warranty and more) with the same amount of money spent on the construction of a new home, you will get the idea. For the same money, you could get one small, inert bedroom, with inadequate insulation, thin drywall, cheap carpeting, one hand-crank window, no sound system and no furniture. The kind of production efficiency and quality assurance used to manufacture cars is not a proprietary secret. In most industries, it is now just the ante into the game of business. Conventional homebuilders think they are playing a different game.

It is notable, then, that The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday about the reinvigoration of Toyota Home, a division of the company that is now the world’s largest carmaker. Yes, they also build homes and have been doing so—very much under the radar, it would seem—since 1975. If “The Toyota Way” is being brought to the production of homes, expect something very good and getting constantly better: expect the future of homebuilding.

Toyota sets the standard for continuous product improvement, elimination of waste and for balancing customer satisfaction with employee satisfaction. Thousands of businesses, including ours, are adherents to LEAN principles, which have largely been modeled and led by Toyota. Ironically, the quality leadership might not have come from Japan were it not for an American, W. Edwards Deming. He was a statistician and quality control expert who worked with American industry during WWII, but was forgotten afterwards. He was invited to Japan around 1950 to advise their industry leaders about how to build quality into business and manufacturing processes. What he told them sparked an incredible turnaround. There is no doubt that Deming was the catalyst for what is now legendary Japanese quality, and the Deming Prize has been the most prestigious award for Japanese corporations since 1950. If only we had listened…

I now see this history repeating itself. There is precious little information on the Toyota web site about Toyota Home. In fact, there is only one page, with no links. However, there is this clue about what they are doing: “…Toyota’s house making is based on the ‘Skeleton & Infill’ approach.” These are words right out of the mouth of John Habraken, another big thinker whose ideas have been largely ignored in many parts of the world, but not Japan, where he is well known and highly respected. Habraken has preached the theoretical and physical separation of structure and infill for decades. The reference on the Toyota site isn’t a coincidence; it comes from either a Habraken lecture or one of his books. Toyota listened to Deming and therefore led the world in manufacturing quality; they are now listening to Habraken and, in the same manner, may be positioned to use his ideas to transform homebuilding. If we would only listen…

I recognize Habraken’s words because I know them. I discovered Habraken in the early 1990’s and have been an advocate of his “Open Building” concepts since. I was captivated by his book, Supports, tracked him down, and subsequently spent some time with him when he was living in Cambridge, MA, later visited him in Holland and even managed to persuade him to give a full day seminar at our company. Our Open-Built® system is greatly derived from Habraken’s thinking. I’ll devote a post about Habraken in the near future, but for now, you can link to a short bio on Wikipedia. As far as I know, we are the only company in North America that uses the philosophy of Open Building as a basis for our design and construction systems. I now know we, at Bensonwood, have a pretty good companion company in Japan.

One other thing struck me about The Wall Street Journal article. The author ponders whether Toyota can sustain the homebuilding operation because its sales are “so small”— at around 5,000 units a year from three production facilities. They have a goal of producing 7,000 units in the near future. That’s “so small?” I am aware of no companies in North America producing anything like that!

Whether or not Toyota can sustain its homebuilding operations, the answer here is clear. Not to mix metaphors, but if design/build companies and the businesses that supply them fail to see the “value” train leaving the station, their conventionally built homes—unable to compete—will be going the way of the Edsel.

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