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Japan COVID-19 vaccination center uses 'Toyota method' to rev up productivity

So that visitors can move efficiently, they simply walk in one line without tracing any paths they have walked before at the vaccination center in the Aichi Prefecture city of Toyota, on June 6, 2021. (Mainichi/Hitomi Takai)

TOYOTA, Aichi -- Local auto giant Toyota Motor Corp. has dispatched employees specializing in the Toyota method of improving productivity to a mass vaccination center in this central Japan city, and succeeded in raising the number of people who can get vaccinated by 1.5 times.

    The system has doctors saying that they can focus on important tasks such as pre-exams and the vaccination itself due to the elimination of unnecessary tasks. The system has been popular among those who have come to the center to receive their vaccinations as well, with many saying that it's "fast and easy to understand."

    A special cooler box that Yamato Transport Co. uses for the transport of coronavirus vaccines is seen at a vaccination center in the Aichi Prefecture city of Toyota on June 6, 2021. The box can keep items at minus 60 to 90 degrees Celsius for about 30 hours without electricity. (Mainichi/Hitomi Takai)

    This is thanks to a group of people dubbed the "kaizen corps" who stand by and watch the flow of people alongside the staff and medical practitioners on site. They are veteran Toyota employees who provide instruction on productivity improvement at Toyota auto factories. One noticed that there were few binders into which visitors insert their paperwork into at the entrance and said, "There needs to be a sharing of the timing at which the binders collected at the exit are brought back to the entrance," and went off to inform a staff member.

    The Toyota Municipal Government asked for the auto company's cooperation in securing vaccination centers in suburbs and other areas where such spaces were scarce. In response to the request, Toyota said that it wanted to supply more than just space, and offered to provide manpower and the know-how to run the huge undertaking. With the added cooperation of Yamato Transport Co., which has special cooler boxes that can keep items cold for long hours without electricity, and a local medical association, the city began preparations in February. According to the municipal government, it is rare in Japan for a private company to be involved in the setting up of a vaccination center.

    To secure a target production volume by a set deadline, at Toyota auto factories, the time that each process takes is calculated by the second. This thinking was adapted to the mass vaccination center as well. The target time for each person to stay at the vaccination center, including time spent waiting, was set at between 30 to 40 minutes. Small increments of time were allotted for each step of the process: 30 seconds for taking off an outer layer such as a coat, 10 seconds for rolling up a sleeve to expose the vaccination site on the arm, and 34 seconds for the vaccination itself. "We're dealing with people so it's fine if we can't complete the whole process within the time we have set," a Toyota employee who was dispatched to the vaccination center said. "But if we have a rough template of how we want things to go, we can work smoothly."

    Signs that instruct people what to do at a glance are seen at a vaccination center in the Aichi Prefecture city of Toyota on June 6, 2021. The illustrations are large, and arrows are placed low to match the eye level of older adults. (Mainichi/Hitomi Takai)

    Standing out at the center are some 60 signs, big and small, directing people where to go, and what to do, and informing them what's going to happen. Applying the know-how Toyota has of instruction plates at factories that are easily understandable at a glance, the signs at the center use illustrations to clearly explain the flow of the vaccination process, the correct posture to take when getting vaccinated, what to look out for after getting vaccinated, and so on. Arrows are placed low on the wall to match the eye level of older adults with small statures.

    Under the "kaizen" method of improvement, people onsite offer their views and improve tasks and other factors (kaizen literally means "improvement" or "to improve" in Japanese). At the mass vaccination center, meetings are held three times a day -- before the center opens, around noon, and after the center closes for the day -- with all staff, including medical practitioners, participating. At least 10 "kaizen" improvements have been made in the three mass vaccinations that have taken place since May 30.

    Three times a day -- before opening, around noon, and after closing -- staff and medical practitioners gather together to offer "kaizen" improvement suggestions at a vaccination center in the Aichi Prefecture city of Toyota on June 6, 2021. (Mainichi/Hitomi Takai)

    A nurse suggested that in order to preserve the quality of the vaccines, which deteriorates when they are subjected to UV rays, nearby curtains should be closed when handling them to dilute them or to inject them. In response to a doctor's complaint that the acrylic board separating them from the visitor got in the way of them receiving the visitor's pre-exam form, the solution was to make a small space at the bottom of the acrylic board, through which the forms could be passed back and forth.

    To prevent crowding due to visitors looking for paperwork at the reception area, a work station was set up so that visitors can get out the necessary forms and put them in a binder themselves. An instrument that would read the barcodes on pre-exam forms was also introduced so that barcodes could be read automatically when the forms are placed within the borders of the instrument instead of trying to get the camera on a tablet to square up with the barcodes. Each move comprises a small change. But an accumulation of such changes has made the flow of people much smoother, shrinking the time spent until vaccinations are done by two minutes, and increasing the number of people that can be vaccinated in a day by 1.5 times.

    An instrument made by Toyota Motor Corp. to read the barcodes on visitors' pre-exam forms is seen at a vaccination center in the Aichi Prefecture city of Toyota on June 6, 2021. It eliminates the need to match up the camera on a tablet to the barcode on the form. (Mainichi/Hitomi Takai)

    Ayako Shimizu, 80, who received her vaccination, seemed relieved with how easy the 20-minute process from the time she arrived at the center and the time her observation time ended was. "It was much shorter than I expected," she said with a smile. "There were signs and arrows, so I knew where to go and what to do."

    Toyotakamo Medical Association member and physician, Yasuhiro Osugi, said, "It's been good in that we've been able to vaccinate more people, but on top of this, unproductive tasks have been eliminated and we can focus on the more important things, like the pre-exams and the vaccinations."

    A work station set up for visitors to gather together all their paperwork and place it in a binder before going to reception is seen at a vaccination center in the Aichi Prefecture city of Toyota on June 6, 2021. This prevents crowding at the reception area. (Mainichi/Hitomi Takai)

    An official at the Toyota Municipal Government said, "We'd like to balance safety and security with productivity and create an environment in which as many people as possible can be vaccinated and regain their normal day-to-day lives."

    According to Toyota Motor Corp., the Toyota method has been implemented in the Aichi Prefecture cities of Miyoshi and Nisshin. There have been requests for cooperation from outside the prefecture, too, which the company is now considering.

    (Japanese original by Hitomi Takai, Nagoya News Center)

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