Toyota’s job rotation policy

Kerry Creech became President of Toyota Motor Manufacturing of Kentucky (TMMK) in July 2023. He had joined Toyota as a team member in powertrain quality control in Georgetown, KY in 1990. Toyota’s policy of developing people and promoting from within made this career possible. Kerry Creech got a degree in electrical and electronics engineering in 2010 while a manager at Toyota.

There are many dimensions to Toyota’s Human Resource Management, and I would like to focus this post on the specifics of Job Rotation as a policy that sets Toyota apart from most other manufacturing companies. A blog reader asked about it, so I checked with Tracey Richardson for accurate details, at least for Toyota’s US operations when she was working there.

There are two types of rotations, involving, in different ways, production operators – “team members” in Toyota parlance – and the support staff, starting with first-line managers – known as “group leaders.”

Production Operators

Production operators work in teams of 4 to 6 members, with a few exceptions on either side. Each team has a team leader. Four to six teams make up a group, with a group leader who is a first-line manager. 

An operator job is a sequence of tasks. On the shop floor, production operators rotate jobs every two hours. This ensures that every team member can do every task the team does, and the level of proficiency of each team member for every task is tracked on the team’s skills matrix. This is a characteristic of TPS.

 In manual work and walk time, these tasks add up near the takt time for all team members, except the team leader, who supports the other members. The team leaders cover absences and are told when given this role that they can be on the line up to 50% of the time. They pitch in when something is out of standard, or a team member is in training.

Under normal conditions,  the team leaders respond to andon calls and perform ancillary tasks while the other team members produce. They follow up on problems, track andons and defects, ensure that flow racks have parts, and train other members as needed. The jobs are designed and documented in Work Combination Charts, which Toyota calls “Standardized Work.”

Multi-skilled Team Members

Each team member is expected to be proficient in at least four jobs, and the ones at this level rotate only within the team. Team members can learn jobs beyond their team within the group.  Those who know at least 12 jobs rotate between teams. The group leader documents the proficiency of each team member on each task in a skills matrix that is prominently displayed in the break area.

The Value of Rotations

Making this function smoothly clearly takes substantial management attention, so what is the point of these rotations? They reduce the risk of injury and enhance flexibility. Not all jobs are equal in terms of the workload they place on different parts of the body, their complexity, the judgment calls they require, and their ergonomics.

Based on all these factors, Toyota characterizes the jobs as green, yellow, or red. The rotations then ensure that no one stays at a red job for an entire shift. Kaizen and QC circle activities aim to gradually reduce red jobs, but until a specific one is eliminated or improved, the rotations mitigate its impact on team members. 

The rotations train the team members to take on more and more different jobs as needed, enhancing the group’s flexibility when faced with abnormal situations, like extreme weather, higher volumes, or vacation time. Toyota’s job rotation system prevents a problem you encounter at many other companies: a machinist or assembler stays at the same station for 15 years,  does work no one else can, and is a single point of failure for an entire line. 

Job Security

In many organizations, employees like to have a unique, indispensable skill, as they perceive it to be their job security. Unfortunately, human resource policies often make this perception accurate, and management talk is powerless to change it. For team members to agree to share their secrets, they must experience that it has desirable consequences.

Management notices a team member’s drive to learn all the jobs, and appreciates it as the mark of personal initiative. Along with other criteria, it enhances the member’s potential for promotion. As the team members with the most skills leave the team, the skills matrix is never perfect, and is always a work in progress.

How Promotions Happen

For these promotions to happen, not only must there be an opening, but also the departure of the most skilled team member must not disrupt the team’s operations. This requires succession planning. An “indispensable” team leader cannot move out of the team. Part of the role of the team leader is then to prepare one or more other members to step into it.

Managers and Support Staff

Rotations continue in the management and support staff, but they do not affect all employees, and they occur at a different pace. These rotations are tours of duty that last months or years. In management and support positions, some employees rotate between different departments, to prepare for high-level management positions later. An individual may, for example, move from engineering to purchasing, and the path is different for every individual. 

This systematic rotation enables these employees to understand the issues of different departments and to develop a wide network of relationships within the company. This is not unique to Toyota or even Japan. Companies like Boeing or Unilever have similar systems in place for employees tagged as “high-potential” or “executive potential.”

Whether or not this system is effective in a given company depends on how management applies it and how participants grow in it. Like many practices, it can, over decades, degenerate into formalism and reward participants for not making waves, as opposed to leaving each department better than they found it. 

Who Participates and in Which Jobs

These rotations are for employees, not contractors or temps. Not all employees rotate in this fashion, and not all jobs are open to rotating employees. An accountant could move into R&D. He or she would not get involved in clay molding or CAD, but could oversee processes.

The manager of a production line may move to HR as part of his or her career plan. Taking charge of Skills Trade Development, Safety and Medical Management in one US plant can be a springboard to general management of processes across multiple plants. Usually, high-level managers have spent time in multiple functional areas.

Promoting from Within versus Hiring Outsiders

Toyota has a policy of promoting from within when possible, and it is not uncommon for production team members to move into support departments. Employees who start out in support departments can also move into general management positions.

The more common pattern in the US is for support departments to be lifelong tracks. If you work in Quality, Maintenance, or IT in a manufacturing company, your career path is to the same department in other companies. Toyota in the US eventually also hired outside candidates for these positions, which required cultural adjustment for some. 

Rotation Planning

First, you need to train. There is always a core curriculum of required internal courses. Some are generic, and others are specific to a department or position.  For each level and function, the Toyota Institute developed a core curriculum to be rolled out. Then, to rotate into a position in another department, you had to (1) prepare your own succession in your current position and (2) be placed in succession planning for the new one. You have to have the requisite education and experience, and there has to be an opening.

The Role of HR

The organization of the rotation and the training are all done by the HR department. HR plays a much larger role at Toyota than at leading American companies. As Bill Waddell pointed out, most HR departments focus on protecting companies from their employees.

To the extent that HR provides training, it is usually on topics like mandatory safety procedures. This ensures that the company cannot be blamed for failure to brief employees. This kind of HR department does not get involved in career planning or training on the hard and soft skills for various positions.


While the 2-hour rotations on the production floor are a key part of TPS, I have seen systematic rotations between professional positions at GM, Boeing, and Unilever. Many companies also operated large-scale, institutional training programs:

  • GM operated the General Motors Institute (GMI) as an accredited university until 1982. It lives on today as Kettering University in Flint, MI, and has ~2300 students. It still cooperates with GM on extended internships.
  • Motorola had Motorola University, which no longer exists.
  • In the late 1990s, I taught a course for the University of Dayton at a training center built by AT&T in Lisle, IL. It had hotel rooms, classrooms with wall-size whiteboards, and a restaurant designed to serve groups of students. The owners abandoned it in 2006, and the National Wrecking Company demolished it in 2020, and posted its handiwork:
  • Spain’s Mondragon Group is a workers’ cooperative with 74,000 members. It started out as a vocational school for machinists in the early 1950s. Over decades, it morphed into Mondragon University and now has about 5,500 students. It is still part of the Mondragon Group.
  • Steve Jobs started Apple University in 2008 to pass on the company’s culture. Its main facility is at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, CA, and its instructors are Apple executives and high-level academics.

Toyota operates multiple learning centers in Japan, targeted at audiences ranging from High School graduates to international professionals. It also provides courses worldwide at production facilities.


Other companies have had rotation programs for professional employees and operate their own “universities.” What is special to TPS is the rotations on the shop floor. They develop multi-skilled operators, track their achievements in skills matrices posted in the team areas, and conduct career planning, all through the HR department.

What is also special is the enthusiasm with which beneficiaries of that system reminisce about it. Tracey Richardson, for one, feels that no university at that time could have provided her with the knowledge and skills she acquired through Toyota.

Today, some schools are recognizing these gaps and developing curricula based on employer competency needs. This includes soft skills, critical thinking, problem-solving, strategic planning, standardized work, and continuous improvement. Tracey feels that the Ohio State University’s MBOE program is a great example.

Bridging the gap between what manufacturing professionals need and what universities teach has also been the goal that Torbjørn Netland and I pursued with our Introduction to Manufacturing, focussing on hard skills for students of Industrial Engineering and Operations Management, rather than business schools. 



#jobrotation, #training, #traceyrichardson, #toyota