A Man and a Plant Grow in Alabama

Theodore Bridgeforth chose TMMAL over farming and hasn’t looked back

June 06, 2017
Like Father, Like Daughter -- Jasmine (left) picked up her dad's TMMAL habits in her own school work.

When the 5 millionth engine rolled off the line, Theodore Bridgeforth was a happy man. It had been 14 years since he joined the brand-new engine plant at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Alabama. Fourteen years of hard work and gradual adjustments.
He’s grown with the plant, learned from it, improved with it. He was there when the plant added a V6 line in 2005, and when it added the 4-cylinder line in 2011.
So when Bridgeforth saw that 5 millionth engine come off the line in March, it was a milestone for him as a person and as a TMMAL team member. He, along with his nearly 1,400 teammates, share a unique ownership in this plant. TMMAL doesn’t just make engines. For many – Bridgeforth included – TMMAL has given them professional purpose and a way to provide for their families.
So yeah, Bridgeforth was pretty darn proud of that 5 millionth engine.
The Way
A few weeks ago, Bridgeforth’s teenage daughter, Jasmine, showed off her work on a project for an advanced placement class at school.
What she said surprised her father.
“She said, ‘Hey dad, look at this problem breakdown,’” Bridgeforth explains. “’Isn’t this your TBP process?’ I was so proud of that. That showed me that my work here is rubbing off on my daughter. The way she thinks and how she plans her activities. Always trying to be efficient.”
Bridgeforth, now a shipping projects group leader, started in receiving conveyance when TMMAL opened in 2003, so he’s had time to – either overtly or covertly – teach the Toyota Way to Jasmine.
TBP, for the uninitiated, is Toyota Business Practices, a process of solving a problem by drilling down to its root cause so it never happens again.
And it’s one of the many TMMAL life lessons that have applications outside the plant.
How 'Bout Them Cowboys? -- Born and raised in Alabama, Bridgeforth is still a big Cowboys fan. But when it come to college? it's all about the University of Alabama. 

Starting Fresh
The Bridgeforth family is made up of farmers. Bridgeforth Farms, according to Theodore, is one of the  largest black-owned farms in the Southeast United States. It sits in the tiny town of Tanner, Alabama, about 30 miles from TMMAL in Huntsville, and about 10 miles from Theodore’s hometown of Athens, Alabama.
Instead of farming, Bridgeforth decided to go into manufacturing. While working for furniture maker Steelcase in 2003, he heard Toyota was opening a new plant in Huntsville. He applied to be a group leader, but had to settle for a role as a team member instead.
Over time, Bridgeforth has moved up the ladder in shipping conveyance. From team member to team leader and then to shipping projects group leader just a few weeks ago. He now leads a team of nine people, making sure they’re empowered to make timely decisions in order to hit key performance indicators.
“If my team is happy, then that makes my job a whole lot easier, and it helps us reach our goals,” he says.
4 Million Engines Ago -- Bridgeforth (second from right) was around for TMMAL's 1 millionth engine. He was also around for the first, and the 5 millionth. 

A Feeling of Ownership
Over the last 14 years, Bridgeforth says, there has been a slight culture shift at TMMAL.
In those early days, there was a rigidity about the job that surpassed even Toyota’s usual strict precision. Employees may have been hesitant to pull the Andon cord, for fear of admitting a mistake. But, as Bridgeforth and his coworkers adapted, kaizen took hold. Soon, they were challenging the status quo of processes and finding innovative ways to improve their jobs.
“When I first got here, it was a strict culture, very detail oriented,” he says. “Now, it’s more relaxed. We’re still very detail oriented, but now if there’s an issue, we know what we have to do. There’s a willingness to say ‘Hey, I have an issue right now. Let me address it.’” 
As Bridgeforth gained his footing at TMMAL, he felt empowered to offer solutions to the problems around him. And he encouraged others to implement their ideas into solving problems.
“There’s a sense of ownership now,” Bridgeforth says. “From making suggestions to implementing new processes, to identifying safety processes. We try to incorporate what we do at Toyota as far as standardized work, but we also encourage other ideas. Because I came from Steelcase, sometimes I can see things from an outsider’s point of view and make suggestions. That has helped me advance.”
And as Bridgeforth advanced up the ladder, so did TMMAL. The celebration of its 5 millionth engine was met with joy from both the state and the company. Further, it gave him a chance to reflect on how far both he and the plant have come over the last 14 years.
“That 5 millionth engine illustrated the growth of Alabama and this plant,” Bridgeforth says.
And it shows his own growth in the process, as he collaborated across boundaries to aid his teammates and his plant to hit such lofty goals.
“Personally, it showed me that I made the right decision to come to Toyota back in 2003. To see that I went from the starting point to the 5 millionth engine, and it was a result of ideas and concepts that I helped develop to help produce that product. I am really proud.”

By Dan Nied

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