Norm Bafunno Tackles a Mountain

Toyota’s Chief Competitiveness Officer embraces the tough job ahead

August 08, 2017
Enthusiastic Competitiveness -- At last week's North American Business Update (NABU) meeting, Chief Competitiveness Officer Norm Bafunno (center left) shared his visions with TMNA while sharing the stage with (from left) TFS CEO Mike Groff, TMNA CEO Jim Lentz and 7-Eleven CEO Joe DePinto. (Photos by Tim Rice)


When Norm Bafunno took over the newly created position of Chief Competitiveness Officer in January, it didn’t come with a job description.
Bafunno, with his small team that makes up the Competitiveness Project, traveled around North America and Japan, talking to senior leaders from both Toyota Motor North America (TMNA) and Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) to see what they felt was working and where we could improve. That’s the kind of assertive action Bafunno’s job takes. And it’s the kind of behavior he’s hoping to spur among all TMNA team members.
Last week, Bafunno outlined his vision at the North American Business Update meeting, highlighting a team member named Jeff Cawyer, who has created a tool to help the company become more competitive.
We caught up with Bafunno to talk about the challenge of trying to foster change in a company that has been at the top of its industry for decades.
Bafunno candidly discussed the importance of thinking beyond kaizen, asking the right questions to change the culture of Toyota and instilling an all-important sense of urgency.
Driver’s Seat: What does the competitiveness project do?
Norm Bafunno: In the big picture, we are brainstorming together about where we could improve. When we look at how we perform different activities in our company, we ask, “What’s a better way of doing this activity that brings the product to the customer sooner and provides a level of customer experience that’s better than it is today?
We can’t be just an idea company. We have to be implementers. A lot of times there are things getting in the way of implementing.
We ask:
  • How do we get rid of those obstacles?
  • What’s the innovation we need to develop that will allow that goal to be realized?
Teamwork -- Bafunno and Chief Diversity Officer Chris Reynolds get together to practice during rehearsal for NABU last week. 

How does this fit with your previous experience?
My background and experience has all been in manufacturing. And I’ve cherished that opportunity to work with our plants. During that time I’ve also been able to establish relationships with our sales and marketing teams, our R & D teams, and our after-market service and parts teams. Even the finance team and export teams. But when (TMNA CEO) Jim (Lentz) approached me about this opportunity and said, “Norm, we’re looking to do something different here. What do you think?” I had to take a step back and ask him what he was thinking about.
Jim really wants to reinvent the way that we’re doing things in North America. He is very concerned about the status quo and he is focused on establishing a highly performing One Toyota North America region. How are we going function? It’s all about new processes and new ideas that we can bring forth and act upon. Jim is really challenging us.
Before this, you were the president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana. Was it tough to leave?
Absolutely. I enjoy working everyday with so many great friends and very talented people. Your comfort zone is where you have established your career. TMMI is a place that I was knowledgeable about. I knew the inner workings very closely, as I would in most manufacturing environments. But now I need to support sales and marketing – as well as manufacturing – and understand their concerns. I have to look at finance and their concerns, and research and development and their concerns. It has been an eye opener for me.
I’ve been able to ask a lot of questions that I don’t know the answer to. “Why do we do things like this? Can we stop doing this?” Part of the Competitiveness Project is to ask, ”Why are we even doing this? Who is using this? Has it just been here for a long time? Can we just stop doing this and create something new?” But we also need to be a catalyst for others to create something as well.
Wise Words -- "Our historical success does not guarantee future success," Bafunno says. "But I know we have the most important ingredient to create success: great people."
You’re going against the wind here. You’re trying to fundamentally change the way we do things at a company that’s been on top for a long time.
Exactly. But our historical success does not guarantee future success. But I know we have the most important ingredient to create success: great people. We have earned a reputation for great products and systems. But we have to improve more and to innovate. We have got to find better ways. We’ve got to be faster. We may have 14 percent market share today, but we must continue to be aggressive about what we can do better. We must have a sense of urgency as if we’re a start up with zero percent market share.
How do we continue the kaizen culture here, but go further?
Continuous improvement is integral to our company. Kaizens end up creating significant change in how we do business and we need everyone’s ideas for improvement daily. But we can’t just kaizen ourselves into the future. I want people to think beyond just the kaizen, because kaizen alone will not be enough to keep us leading the pack. It starts with our business planning every year. What project will we take on that transforms our department?
So, what can everyone do to make us more competitive?
I would like every team member to think about what we can do to be more competitive. What do our customers need and what are we providing? Do we provide things that they don’t need? Are there better ways to provide things they do need? The best answers to these questions will result from our ability to increase collaboration and to be an inclusive team. To me, that means actively seeking out people with different points of view and to listen. And that’s how we can create innovation and real change.
If I asked what this innovation looks like, I think it is underlined with the word “speed.” We have to do it fast. We have to take action now. It may not be completely figured out. But if we know it’s good and we know it’s going to help the company, we must implement it.
So, keep making incremental improvements, but keep looking for the bigger things?
That’s right. And do it now.
By Dan Nied
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