Norm Bafunno

With more than 4,000 employees at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana in Princeton, thousands of Tri-State families have a vested interest in the auto manufacturer’s success, and earlier this year, Toyota revamped production at TMMI. Bad news followed the good, though: The Toyota recall of millions of vehicles due to widespread safety problems drew global — and local — concerns.

In an effort to initiate change, Toyota leadership spurred organizational moves within the company. Part of that plan was returning Norm Bafunno from Toyota’s Kentucky plant to TMMI where he started at Toyota in 1997 after years at General Motors as an assistant plant manager in Pontiac, Mich. Six days into his new role as president of the Indiana plant, Bafunno, who has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University and a master’s degree in management from Northwestern University, talked with Evansville Business Publisher Todd A. Tucker.

My first job probably was a stock boy at Ace Hardware, which was just down the street from where I lived in St. Louis. I think the biggest lesson I learned is to treat people as you want to be treated. I think this element of respect for people is very important. But I also think, “How do I bring value to whatever I’m doing?” I still can remember when I was a stock boy, I always would ask, “Why do we have these different routes? How can I do things a little differently?” At first, I didn’t want to bring those ideas forward because I was afraid I didn’t know something and other people already had figured it all out. But when it comes down to it, if I can suggest ideas and implement those ideas in a constructive way, I think that’s been one of the things that brought me a lot of excitement or a lot of confidence through the years.

My leadership style is one of engagement. How do I get a chance to see the current activity in the plant? And what are our current concerns? And then what are we doing? And I think the best way to do that is to get a lot of different inputs. Our team members, of course, have a very big voice. What kind of issues, what kind of concerns do they have? And then what obstacles do we have in solving those problems? So, we talk to our engineering group, we talk to our scheduling group, we talk to our quality group — whomever it might be. My style is to make sure that we have an open, two-way communication, and that people feel comfortable saying what’s on their minds.

I think the company attitude is one of “We need to continue to improve.” Obviously, we have been in the news a lot this year, with some of the quality concerns by consumers and also just in general. I think even though we may have done some things that had some very good recognition for our vehicle quality, we always can get better. The new things that we put in place with our teams: Immediately, within 24 hours of receiving customer complaints, we bring in this independent board of quality experts from around the world helping us get better. I think this is a great step that will help us strengthen.

We’ve recovered 10 or 15 percent from the bottom, so we can see some things improving. But we still have a way to go. (The challenges we faced) had us reflect back on what we could have made better. Now we have time to reflect on that and, more importantly, implement ideas.

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