Attentive at TMMK -- Susan Elkington (Left) takes time to talk with team members at last year's TNGA lineoff at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky.
Susan Elkington has a tough job.
It’s not like being president at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky is ever a walk in the park, but she’s replacing the retired – and beloved – Wil James.
Yet, since taking over at the beginning of the year, Elkington slipped into her new presidential role with aplomb and grace, taking some advice from James and adding her own considerable technical expertise – she’s a former engineer at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana – and personal curiosity.
If the pressure is getting to Elkington, she’s not showing it. When we spent some time with her at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, she was basking in the glow of the reveal of the next generation Avalon which, of course, will be made at TMMK. And she spoke optimistically about the challenges ahead.
She also told us about life on her family farm and adjusting to a very visible role. You can see that stuff by clicking here,
(Sorry, though. You can only watch the video if you're on Toyota's network) and you can read more below.
Driver’s Seat: How long have you been president of TMMK?
Oh, for about two weeks (laughs). Just since the first of the year.
When you find out you’re coming into this job does the pressure start to mount?
I was told when I was doing my assignment in Japan that I was going to be coming to TMMK. And I was going to the SVP position and that Wil would be retiring. So, I knew there was potential to become president, but as it got closer and closer there was a lot of tension. But I’m pretty excited about being in this role. I was at TMMK for only a year before this.
What did you learn in that year?
Learning from Wil is what it was all about. In the first four or five months, I didn’t attend any meetings. I spent my time on the production floor getting to know the team members and what makes TMMK unique. Then going through the launch of the new Camry and the TNGA transition
was really exciting. But the big part was working with Wil and seeing his interactions with external affairs, government affairs and within the community. He showed me how important TMMK is to Kentucky.
That’s not some minor plant. It’s the biggest in the country. That’s a lot of pressure. Have you cracked?
(Laughs) You know, I had to take a vacation right before this was announced because it was pretty daunting how big this job was going to be. I thought about what would be the most daunting part of my role. At first, I thought it would be the sheer size of the facility. We have over 240 restrooms at that facility. So even maintaining restrooms is a big deal. But the thing that probably hit me the most is the fact that, besides the 8,000 jobs Toyota has here, we’ve impacted about 25,000 jobs in Kentucky. Since the plant opened in 1986, we have donated more than $114 million to the commonwealth of Kentucky. It’s daunting to think that your job and your decisions have such a big impact on the community. And it’s not just for the people working there now, but for generations to come.
How did you get here?
The Way We Were -- Elkington with a coworker during her first trip to Japan in 1998.
I worked at TMMI for 16 years. I started as an engineer in assembly a year before the plant opened. I worked in many different roles: production, maintenance, engineering, administration. Then I had the opportunity to go to Japan for three years and work at TMC headquarters. I got to work with all 53 plants around the world, so I got to see what we do well globally, and examine the strengths of North America and see the opportunities for us to improve.
Do you think that Japan assignment is a must for anyone coming into a high-level position?
I definitely think it’s a benefit. But I don’t know if it’s a must because there’s lots of different ways to learn. But that role shows you how Toyota truly works. You can go visit. But until you go day in and day out and see why people do the things they do, you can’t fully grasp why the culture is so strongly about developing people and having humility, why it’s so customer focused. By being there, I got to learn that.
What goals do you have for your first year as president?
My first year I have three goals. First, we have a couple of model launches including the Avalon, so we have to make sure those are successful and we build the best vehicles possible for our customers. The second part, I work at a sedan plant. We all know the Camry is wonderful, the Avalon is wonderful, the ES is wonderful. But we also know the shift is to SUVs, so we want to continue to make ourselves competitive so we can be ready for future projects to come to TMMK. And lastly, we must continue to make TMMK a place team members want to work. That’s about updating the way we do our data and the way we communicate. It’s not just about the Baby Boomers and the Gen Xers, but also the Millennials and the generations after that.
How do you make people want to come to work every day?
The most important thing is that you’re listening and engaging and realize that people add value to what we do. It is a family, and we have to respect everyone who comes to work and let them know their ideas are valued. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what your background is, your ideas are valued. How can we take those ideas and make them a reality?
Say you’re on the line and you have a vehicle going by every 55 seconds. How do you have time to go and do something else? As leaders, we have to make sure we can tap team members to go offline and give them the tools to implement ideas themselves. And team members have to understand the value they add. You might be installing brackets or you might be installing the cables that make brakes work, but you need to understand the value you add to your customers. If you don’t do that right every single time, that means it’s the brakes on someone’s vehicle. It could be a mother with children.
What did you learn from Wil James? And what’s it like to replace a guy like that?
Passing the Torch -- One advantage Elkington had before taking over as TMMK president? She got to learn under her predecessor Wil James (right) for a year.
When I came to the plant, I realized Wil is like a superhero. He really cares about people, so he took me under his wing and spent time with me. He would tell me things as simple as “when you’re walking the floor, you have a million things in your head. But make sure you’re always saying hello and always smiling. Because just one positive word from the plant president can have a big impact on a team member.” He also made sure to say, “Think about the questions that you’re asking, because the questions you ask drive the organization. You set the priorities just with those simple questions.” He always asked about the quality of our vehicles because, he said, the most important thing – the thing that was going to keep us employed – was that we were always producing a quality product for our customers. So those are some little things. But he’s like a dad, he’s teaching you the subtle little things.
The fact that you’re a woman shouldn’t matter but it’s something that people notice. You’re one of three female plant presidents at TMNA. What does carrying that mantle mean to you?
By getting into these roles, some girl is going to think “it’s possible for me, too.” One thing I encourage, no matter if you’re male or female, is that you challenge yourself to go into roles that deal with our prime business – maybe sales, manufacturing, or design – because that’s where you truly understand how the operation works. Then, if you find your interest is in another area, you can make that your forte. That’s an important part if you want to run a facility.
How do we get more girls into this line of work?
A New Trend -- Elkington with her two daughters Kylie Eckert (left) and Leah Eckert (right). In Jauary, Leah followed in Susan's footsteps, beginning her career as an engineer at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana.
You have to start very early on, and it’s very subtle in everything we do. It’s not just about women encouraging women, it’s about men encouraging women, and men encouraging men to make change. I have a daughter who began working as an engineer at TMMI a week ago. So I was able to see, even in today’s age, what it’s like for young girls who have a desire to build, or have a technical type of background, to actually get through the schools and be allowed to do what they want to do. The same thing has to happen inside our facilities.
What’s your favorite movie?
When I watch a movie, it’s about relaxing, laughing and feeling good. So, my favorite movies have to do with Hugh Grant. My favorite ones are Four Weddings and a Funeral
and Notting Hill.
My husband actually grew up in England. And in both of those movies you have an Englishman and an American woman. But English humor is different than American humor. So between the two of us, we can catch all of the subtle jokes.
That’s all we got!
By Dan Nied