Learning From Toyota & Jennifer Knapp

I was the opening act on the ironically named “Eleventh Hour Tour” headlined by Jars of Clay and Jennifer Knapp in 2002. Jennifer told me it would be her last. She said she needed a break but it didn’t need to be said.

Anyone could see how beyond tired she was.

Quality Over Quantity

In the 80s Toyota made arguably the most reliable cars in the world. GM did not.

At GM the top commandment in the factory was “Do not stop the line.”

At Toyota it was “Quality over quantity.”

One GM worker says if someone had a heart attack he was expected to push the guy aside and keep going so the line wouldn’t stop. Stopping the line for any reason would mean embarrassment, a lengthy gripe session from management and probable firing.

At Toyota factories a rope hung over every worker’s head. Pulling the rope stopped the line and played a happy tune while a rivet was reinserted, a broken machine was repaired or an injured worker was tended to. The line stopped several times each day because quality was more important than quantity.

It Starts Now

Jennifer was single, hard working and freakishly talented: the industry’s and every fan’s dream.

In the back of a promoter’s van, headed to a signing at Borders Books, Jennifer told me her story. She was turning out albums faster than the rest of us, charting high with every single, filling up rooms, garnering industry praise and logging a lot of miles.

She told me she’d done 250 gigs every year for four years. With travel days added in, she had no time for relationships off the road, no church community or time to serve it. Her band and her road manager seemed to be her primary relationships. The isolation and life-is-work existence had left her spent.

She told me she’d asked her label and management for a break repeatedly. She said she’d told them how empty she was. But, according to her, they didn’t listen. Their response was always the promise of a break after this “one more thing.”

“I can’t do it anymore,” she said.

If Jennifer was the hugging emotional girly type I would have put my arm around her and let her cry it out. But she was strong. A professional at strong. And she wasn’t telling her story to get sympathy from me anyway. She was warning me like the Ghost of Career Future.

Because the future can change.

Broken Off The Line

Out in California, Toyota and GM opened a factory together called NUMMI. It was an odd arrangement. Toyota taught GM how to make cars their way. And Toyota got to manufacture a vehicle in the US, which helped them skirt some import fees and taxes.

GM workers learned to stop the line. Managers were prevented from dishing out any retribution for doing so. In a short time, the NUMMI factory became the top producing GM plant in the world. And the reliability of models produced there was the same as vehicles produced in Japan.

Some managers who cut their teeth at NUMMI tried to convert other GM plants to the Toyota way. The data made the case for them easily. But GM was under the spell of the American work ethic: Quantity is quality.

Managers didn’t trust workers to pull the rope only when necessary. And macho workers feared how the other guys would treat them if they stopped the line to fix their mistake or call attention to someone else’s. Plus there were union negotiated bonuses for every worker tied to how many cars were manufactured, not how well they ran.

At every GM plant – except NUMMI – hundreds of dysfunctional cars sat parked in the yard waiting to be repaired. They came off the line with the wrong fender, a lost tool sealed inside the door, an engine in backward.

They came off the line broken.

Toyotas didn’t.

It Starts Now

In a recent interview with Christianity Today, Jennifer said:

I was telling people “Man, I can’t keep up the schedule. This is just a little bit crazy.” I didn’t have any space to just be a normal human being. I finally realized nobody was going to make that decision for me, so I just said, “I’m not kidding. I need a break, and it starts now.”

And it did. At the end of our tour she moved to Australia and stopped making music.

That was eight years ago.

In those eight years I’ve seen friends in the music business have affairs, divorce, develop drinking and drug problems and anxiety disorders, drop out of church, and become filled with doubt and depression and materialism and cynicism and…

Lots of musicians have come off the line broken.

Some of this stuff just happens because we’re fragile imperfect people this side of heaven. All of us. No matter our occupation or workload. But some of it happens because we won’t pull the rope. Or because we believe the managers at the factory won’t stop the line even if we do.

In the music business quantity is often job one.

Pull The Rope

My first day back from the Eleventh Hour Tour I took my wife Becky on a date. We sat across from each other eating rolls and drinking sweet tea and she said to me, “I don’t want to divorce you…but I understand now why [artist's wife] left him.”

I’d been on the road for most of the last year and a half. I was scared that my label or manager, my booking agency or artist friends would call me a wuss. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to pay the bills if I slowed down. I wouldn’t be successful.

But I knew I wasn’t stronger than Jennifer Knapp. And neither was Becky.

At the pace I was going, I knew I’d be the veteran one day sitting in the back of a van telling a new artist that I needed a break.

I pulled the rope.

Thanks, Jen.