Funny Business: How The Onion is like Toyota

onion_logo072309-thumb-200x200toyota_logo_2005Strange question of the day:  What does The Onion — the world’s best fake newspaper — have in common with Toyota, the car company?

At first the comparison seems ludicrous. In our comedy, we desire creativity and surprise; in our cars we desire reliability and non-surprise. In addition, comedy attract  profoundly different sorts of people than do automotive manufacturers. They occupy different universes.

But this article from yesterday’s NY Times points toward a surprising connection: both The Onion and Toyota are mechanisms for transforming something rough and unfinished (a pile of metal and rubber in Toyota’s case; a pile of loose ideas in the The Onion‘s case) into a smooth, well-functioning final product. They have built organizational circuitry (which is really neural circuitry) to churn huge quantities of  indeterminate stuff into finished product. They are both, in short, improvement machines.

Here is how Onion editors describe their machine:

“It’s a very specific, regimented format,” said Dan Guterman, the head writer. “You sort of learn the Onion language by rote. We spend hundreds of hours in the room deconstructing the jokes. I don’t think there’s anything comparable to the amount of material we generate and reject just to come up with the week’s headlines.”

Toyota operates on the philosophy of kaizen, or incremental improvement. At Toyota, each person learns the company’s cultural langage by rote. Each participates in the improvement process, pointing out errors and recommending solutions, then triangulating toward a better system, step by step. For example: at the company’s Georgetown, KY, plant, the convertible top to the Camry formerly took 30 minutes to install; after a kaizen process — making perhaps a hundred tiny fixes and improvements — it takes only eight minutes. And it’s not just about efficiency — kaizen frequently results in new, creative solutions. Each assembly line makes thousands of such changes a year; they add up to create something beautiful.

Both Toyota and The Onion succeed because they have become very skilled at one fundamental act: Locating weakness in existing structures and improving them. Whether that results in a smoothly running joke, or a smoothly running car — well, that depends on what kind of factory you want to have.