Sean Suggs, recently promoted to president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Mississippi, speaks often about his plant’s future being in its people, and he’s certainly wasted no time making good on that prediction. Late last month, Suggs announced that Toyota is investing $170 million in new equipment in the plant, a move that will bring an additional 400 workers to the area. The plant, which opened in 2011 and produces the popular Corolla automobile, already employs 1,500.
“Our people are the engine of our company,” Suggs told an audience at the IW Manufacturing & Technology Conference & Expo, held in Raleigh, N.C. “But there is a talent gap in our country, and we have to come up with a solution to the skills deficit.” Delivering a keynote address at the show, Suggs, who also serves as his plant’s vice president of administration, offered a real-world example of how to tackle that skills gap head-on: Several students from Raleigh-area high schools were invited to the M&T Show as his special guests to hear first-hand from one of the automotive industry’s principal players.
“Start your impossible” is one of the mottos Suggs uses to motivate his workforce, and he uses his own journey to illustrate the point. “Toyota hired me 20 years ago, somebody with no automotive industry experience, as a team leader on a line, and they gave me an opportunity to grow.” He’s carrying on that tradition by seeking to develop a new generation of workers that will help transform Toyota from an automobile manufacturer to a mobility company. As Akio Toyoda, president of the Japanese corporate parent Toyota Motor Corp., has put it, the company’s goal is “to advance a truly mobile society by helping all people move, grow and explore, in a world that is safe, comfortable and clean.”
“Companies like ours want innovators on their staffs,” Suggs says, and one of the way Toyota Mississippi is helping make that possible is through the Advanced Manufacturing Technician (AMT) program, a partnership between Toyota’s U.S.-based plants and local community colleges with the aim of helping workers earn a two-year associate degree in a skilled trade, with core exercises centered on such topics as safety culture, 5S, Toyota Production System, problem-solving and maintenance reliability. Since the AMT program launched at the Mississippi plant in 2013, 42 students have completed the program.
Another program Suggs has championed is the Imagine the Possibilities program, a statewide effort which brings eighth graders in Mississippi grade schools into modern manufacturing plants. “We need to help students at that young age to see there’s a career ladder for them in manufacturing,” Suggs emphasizes.
If there’s one word that sums up Suggs’ management philosophy, it’s “ikigai,” a Japanese term that loosely translates as, “What’s your purpose?”
“We live by the kaizen – the spirit of continuous improvement – every single day,” Suggs explains, “so every employee is always asking themselves: How can we make this process better? At the end of the day, no matter what we’re building or what we’re doing, the future of our business is our people.”