Kansei Quality: The Near Future of Manufacturing

If a car parks by itself, how do you keep the emotional experience? No, it’s not a Zen riddle. It’s a real life problem that Toyota is working to solve.

The Toyota Motor Corporation has long defined quality in the automotive industry and beyond. Famously, its Toyota Production System, an integrated socio-technical system, has been the model for manufacturing in industry worldwide. Toyota has been the pioneer in Lean manufacturing, a production practice focusing on elimination of waste and preserving value with less work.

Now, Toyota is paving the way for a new dimension of quality with Kansei engineering. Kansei concerns itself with translating a customer’s feelings and needs into the domain of product design.

So as more cars are able to park themselves, as automation takes the driver further out of the equation, how will this affect driving pleasure? And how will emotional values be brought to future products?

“It’s not about driving, it’s about mobility,” says Carole Favart, General Manager Kansei Design for Toyota Motor Europe. “It’s the pleasure you will imagine before and keep in your memory after.” She brings the Mazda Miata as the first Kansei engineering example, the roadster which is not fast by objective measure. “It doesn’t have to be fast in absolute terms,” she says. “It ‘feels fast’ as a journalist once wrote.”

Holistic quality

Kansei design is mainly a holistic approach based on sensory feelings which are confirmed by the complete user experience.

Emotion can be enhanced through materials. “If you see something metal, you expect it to be cold to the touch,” says Favart. “But if it’s warm then you sense it’s fake. You don’t trust it anymore.”

“Kansei’s methodology measures sensitivity – all which is subjective, which is conceptualized by the Kansei Design Department in an early stage, prior to any sketches. Now other Kansei patterns based on design and emotion are popping up.”

A good example is Project F, which was conducted with the Lexus LS ten years ago. “We modified prioritized parts to make it more personal and improve sensory quality on certain zones,” says Favart. “When we enter a car our overall feeling tells us if the balance is not right, even if we can’t define why. This might come from the color tone – there are many details and you cannot express why, but you feel whether it’s harmonized or not. We must create an interior which fits a customer’s taste, yet one in which he feels that every component and material is right regarding his expectations.”

Another pioneer of Kansei in the company is Chika Kako, one of the Chief Engineers of Lexus International. “Most of the time quality gets defined as durability. But initial appearance is of critical importance when it comes to automobiles. Kansei quality means an emotional user experience.”

Kako and Favart say Europeans have high expectations in materials and color coordination, and one of their missions is to create methodologies which integrate into the planning process in early phases.

Toyota has created a Kansei Competency Center in Belgium, which Favart credits largely to Kako. “Thanks to Chika we created a department in Europe which combines Kansei and design. We’re creating new methodologies with the support of academics in Europe, to prepare from the concept phase to make sure we’re better prepared for next step.”

Quality is a mindset

So while the way a consumer feels may be the newest dimension of quality, Toyota and Lexus are far ahead of the pack – a pack that is still largely focused on buzzwords Toyota leaves in its wake.

“Toyota’s production system is well known and it can be copied,” says Kako. “But it’s really just a starting point. Lean manufacturing is mental. Kaizen, kaizen, kaizen!”

Kaizen (improvement) is in the mind she says. “The mind must be always improved. The objective is to eliminate muda, mura, and muri,” or waste, unevenness, and excessiveness, as they are often translated.

Lean is a way of thinking, Kako says, and it isn’t enough to simply put tools in the right place. “You have to have a culture of Lean. What we’re doing now is beyond the expectations of the consumer!”

“It’s important to emphasize the mentality in the company,” Favart adds. “As a daily routine there is no warm water in the lavatories; we turn off lights even on the coffee machine. Everyone is concerned, and that translates to the workplace and to the product.”

When Favart first joined Toyota she noticed that the company was a shareholder in a roof garden company in Japan – an effort to contribute to a more people- and planet-friendly environment. “This was a big thing I discovered – that beyond cars there are many areas where the mentality is visible. ‘Respect’ is a strong word in the Toyota Way. Respect for people and the environment. It makes a big difference.”

Author: Scott Diel