Trail Blazer -- Elijah Caldwell tends to his daily duties under the watchful eye of Ted Brown, assistant general manager of TMMI Quality Engineering. Caldwell is the first graduate of the plant's groundbreaking program -- championed by Brown -- for people with disabilities who has qualified for full team member status.
Some 5,400 team members enjoy full-time employment at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana (TMMI). But Elijah Caldwell, who will soon join their ranks, is truly one of a kind.
That’s because Caldwell is the first graduate of TMMI’s groundbreaking program for people with disabilities who has qualified for team member status.
“It wasn’t that long ago that I didn’t think I could even get a driver’s license,” says Caldwell, who has made great strides in overcoming emotional development issues. “I was worried that if I had a temper problem, I wouldn’t be able to control it. But now, when I look 10 years down the road, I see myself with Toyota. Maybe buying my own house. Maybe getting my own vehicle, a pickup truck. I never thought I’d be able to do that.”
Ted Brown, though, believed in Caldwell — and other people like him who grapple with physical, mental and emotional challenges. Brown is an assistant general manager at TMMI. He’s also the father of Zach Brown, who was born 20 years ago with spina bifida.
“The doctors told my wife, Michelle, and I that Zach would never walk,” says Brown, who’s called the plant in Princeton his work home for the past 18 years. “They said he’d have cognitive disabilities. Our biggest fear was, ‘What happens if something happens to us?’ So we were determined to find a way for him to become independent.”
Step One: Form Enclaves
In 2013, Brown’s personal and professional missions intersected. That’s when he learned that — starting in 2011 — Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, had experimented with the “enclave” model, where people with disabilities carry out tasks in a workspace that’s set apart from the mainstream flow of other employees. TMMI quickly followed suit, launching its first enclave of eight workers who started out assembling jack packages and window switches for Sienna. Its success spawned a second enclave, also of eight workers, that focused on subassemblies for Highlander and Sequoia. To this day, both enclaves not only still exist but continue to be incredibly productive.
Mission accomplished, right? Not entirely.
In 2015, Brown met Randy Lewis — a former senior vice president at Walgreens — who had a son with autism. Lewis had pioneered the enclave concept at the national pharmacy chain. But he didn’t stop there. Ten years ago, he pushed Walgreens to go one big step further and put in place training programs that could help people with disabilities move beyond the enclaves and work side-by-side with other employees.
“Randy believed in full inclusion and Walgreens achieved it,” says Brown. “For example, 30 percent of the 600 workers at their Anderson, South Carolina, facility have disabilities. And many of them are their top performers.”
That’s when Brown had his “aha moment.” Creating pathways to full employment for people with disabilities wasn’t just for their benefit — TMMI stood to gain, too. After all, it’s common knowledge that manufacturers are struggling to find qualified people to fill their jobs, with the unemployment rate in the sector running under 2 percent. Yet the unemployment rate for people with disabilities, which accounts for some 20 percent of the population, is nearly 75 percent.
Also eye-opening: People with disabilities perform at a very high level. In their first five years, Brown says TMMI’s two enclaves have picked some 6 million parts with only one defect to the line. And they’ve yet to experience a single safety incident in more than 150,000 hours of work. Meanwhile, people with disabilities tend to have a higher attendance rate and a lower turnover rate than their counterparts.
Reliable Worker -- Kaitlyn Slough is one of the 16 members of TMMI's enclaves for people with disabilities. She's been a valued member of the team since 2014.
Step Two: Full Inclusion
To get from where TMMI was to where he envisioned it could be, Brown joined forces with fellow team members throughout the organization — including Human Resources — and began offering one of its enclaves special transitional training. The objective: To slowly but surely build up these workers’ skills and experiences in preparation for full employment.
A fundamental change in mindset was also required. Brown says the enclaves, which were originally designed to minimize the workers’ stress and maximize their safety, had to become more like the “real world.” That meant putting workers on the clock and requiring them to produce a certain number of units in a specified time. It meant giving them their own security badges and allowing them to move throughout the plant unescorted. More significantly, it meant kaizening
processes to fit the workers’ capabilities, rather than the other way around.
For example, in the early going, some of the enclave workers were placed with Superior Maintenance Company, a TMMI supplier. Their task was to pick parts based on the flow of vehicles coming down the assembly line. After about six weeks, it was clear that some of the new workers could keep up the pace but others could not.
“So we observed the work area,” says Brown. “And what we discovered was an old dot-matrix printer that generates a list of the parts to be picked. The process in place called for counting 24 lines of data and then cutting the paper. Some of the people, though, struggled with counting. They’d get to 10, lose their place and have to start over. It was slowing them down. But one woman figured out that 24 lines on the printer was exactly six inches. She used a ruler and measured instead of counting. So that became the new standard for that process.”
Step Three: Community Partnership
To strengthen its program, TMMI partnered with Arc of Gibson County, a public agency that has been helping people with disabilities since 1963. Its New Frontiers training focuses on such fundamentals as interviewing and job seeking skills, resume writing and onsite job coaching.
“We give people an opportunity to develop their skill sets without rushing them,” says Nick Shade, manager of the program. “Once they reach a certain level, they can decide whether to go on to the next one. Ultimately the goal is to help them move beyond the enclave.”
Caldwell, who hopes to break in with TMMI’s body weld group, is living proof that it can be done. Rest assured, others will follow.
“Some of the workers in the training program are children of team members and contractors at the plant,” says Brown. “They are so excited to see their kids gain independence and become fully included in the Toyota family.
“That’s Zach’s dream, too,” says Brown of his son. “For him to get a full-time job and live on his own would be the equivalent of his sister winning the Nobel prize. It’s a huge goal. But now, it’s in sight.”
By Dan Miller