Executive Insider: Kristen Tabar

We go tailgating with the former Vice President of R&D, who is now the new VP of Corporate Quality

January 23, 2018
Michigan Made -- Kristen Tabar graduated from the University of Michigan before coming to TMNA R&D. So it's no surprise that Michigan football is still a big part of her life. She and her family have a special tailgate before each home game. 

Funny thing. Just two weeks after we interviewed TMNA Research and Development (TMNA R&D) Vice President Kristen Tabar in Ann Arbor, she took a new role as vice president of Corporate Quality in Plano.
So that makes this an interesting situation. Originally, we caught up to Tabar at her family’s tailgate spot before the Michigan/Ohio State football game in November to learn more about Toyota’s research and development operation in Southeastern Michigan. But after the announcement, we touched base with her again to ask her about the new adventure she’s embarking on in Quality.
So this interview serves two purposes: First, it’ll tell you about TMNA R&D. Then, it’ll tell you a little more about Tabar and her new role.
And if you just want to watch the fun parts we filmed at the Tabar family tailgate before the game, then just click here.

Editor's Note: Unfortunately, you have to be signed in to Toyota's network to view the video. Sorry about that!
Driver’s Seat: There are a lot of new people in this company that may not fully understand what R&D does. Can you tell us?
Kristen Tabar: TMNA R&D used to be the Toyota Technical Center (TTC), and it’s where we start researching things that are maybe 20 years from coming to market. We are the research and development center for all North America. Here we have three main areas of focus: Full vehicle development responsibility for the Avalon, Sienna, and Tundra and shared responsibility for the other vehicles manufactured in North America. Also, evaluation for all models manufactured and sold in North America. We have several testing facilities in Michigan and manage the Toyota Arizona Proving Grounds (TAPG). And finally, advanced research that focuses on future technologies out as far as 2050. In this area, we manage the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) North America and the Collaborative Safety Research Center (CSRC). 
You guys are defining what Toyota and the auto industry will be in the future.
We have all kinds of labs, we do all kinds of material testing. We do electronics testing. It’s a combination of office space where we might do CAD testing and hold meetings. And then almost 50 percent of the space are lab and other technical areas where we do teardowns and build prototypes.

We have a brand new prototype facility that we opened this past year. It’s got state-of-the-art advanced prototyping equipment. So, it’s a combination of design and evaluation.
How does R&D fit in with One Toyota?
The whole image of One Toyota being a mindset and not a location is never more true than it is in Michigan. So as the center for R&D, we’ve been through a lot of change, incorporating a lot of people from the West Coast and reorganizing our structure to be able to work more closely with HQ. We’re really trying to take advantage of this change and make it a time where we can look at how we work and make sure we get the best product out there.
In Charge -- Before Tabar took her new job in Plano, she was a longtime team member at TMNA R&D, rising to vice president. Toyota's research and development center has a family feel to it. Here, Tabar is with coworkers and family, including Shinichi Yasui (second from left), TMNA R&D, Executive Vice President. 

You went to University of Michigan, now you’re a vice president. Tell me about what happened in between that.
(Laughs) Quite a bit. So this is my 25th year at Toyota. I started in our engineering area in electronics. I worked on the audio systems for a lot of our vehicles. Then I worked with a lot of different electronics. Eventually I became vice president of the electronics area. About five years ago, I shifted my role to more strategy and planning and then all across R&D. We try to decide what kind of projects we work on and make sure we have the resources to do them: the people, the money, the buildings, the equipment.
And now, you’ve left R&D to come work in Plano. What is your focus now?
I’ll be leading Corporate Quality for TMNA. Along with my assignment, there are several organization and management changes to the Quality area. The changes represent the result of the One Toyota reorganization and update the way we work. As an example, the Corporate Quality group that I will be leading will shift the focus more specifically to redefining quality in terms of the customer perspective, focusing not only on the traditional quality defects but also the operation and function of our parts and systems. As such, we are renaming the division Quality Promotion, Assurance and Audit.
How tough was it for you to leave R&D? What led to the decision to take this step in your career?
It’s always bittersweet to leave a place where you have so many friends and colleagues. I have worked in R&D my whole career. I’ve had many opportunities to work with teams outside R&D, but I thought it was important to embrace One Toyota. Taking the assignment outside R&D will give me the opportunity to learn about a new function and be a part of establishing our new culture. I hope to blend my knowledge and experience and create new collaborations, improve our business, and provide better products and services for our customers.
How will this affect R&D?
I’d love to say they won’t be able to continue without me (laughs), but of course, this is Toyota. Short term, they will move right on, with a great successor in my position, Mike Bernas. He will continue the strategy and planning for R&D and continue to work closely with TMNA strategy groups to align North America’s business planning. I’m hoping to improve collaboration between R&D and Quality. There are many opportunities to work together and improve our timeliness and effectiveness. Long term, I hope to bring some of my new experience back to R&D. The industry is changing and Toyota, including R&D, has to embrace the change and listen to our customers.
One thing that’s interesting is how many Toyota people are from Michigan.

We have a lot of team members from Michigan because it’s the automotive hub. When we first started working here, it was all about the Detroit 3. But now it’s kind of the Detroit 4, and Toyota is lumped in there. We hear it a lot around events in Michigan. We have a lot of partnerships here. This is really where the industry is changing and becoming more than just automotive. We’re changing this into the mobility industry. And by having that hub with so many different companies and headquarters here, you get people who are real mobility fanatics who come out of this area.
Like a Brother -- Tabar shared TMNA R&D's grounds with her brother, Frank DiMaggio, left. DiMaggio works in Vehicle Performance Development. 

How would you describe your leadership style? Are you more hands-on or let people do their thing?
I’m a leader in this company, but when we’re in work environments, I guess I don’t feel like I act like “The Leader.” I really am more hands off and I like to work as a team. I like to get ideas from a lot of different people. I like to let the team drive the direction we go in.
One thing that R&D is famous for is acquiring patents. Is that something that is driven home every year, that you want to set a standard for technology with these patents?
The patents are really important to the company, but it’s also important to the team members. These are super creative people. They have so many great ideas. We get a lot of people patenting ideas of things they don’t even work on -- great ideas for our cars and other mobility devices. So it’s important that they get rewarded them for their creativity. And for the company, that’s how we protect our ideas and intellectual property.
If I have an idea for a car that has a pizza oven under the hood…
That’s already been patented. You’re a little late.
Ok, what about corn dogs? Can we make corn dogs?
Corn dogs? Maybe?
Can you help me patent that?
See we’re making miracles happen today? Thanks, Kristen!
By Dan Nied
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