Quality Champion

Chris Nielsen on moving to Texas, grilling steaks and keeping customers happy

February 21, 2017
Quality Man -- Chief Quality Officer Chris Nielsen at TCAL last month. 

Chief Quality Officer Chris Nielsen seems as comfortable on the plant floor as the executive suite. After 30 years with Toyota, he’s the man you want protecting the company’s reputation for quality, durability and reliability.

Nielsen has most recently served as president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Texas (TMMTX), and senior vice president of Human Resources, Corporate Strategy, Supplier Engineering Development and Purchasing at Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America (TEMA).

He is also one of the execs who led the HQ site selection team for One Toyota, helping to blaze a trail for the 4,000 team members who will be working at the new campus in Plano.

The affable engineer, who met his wife, Nicole, while working at his first job at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky (TMMK), is a consummate family man. He travels a lot, but cherishes his time at home with their three active boys, including one who’s heading off to college soon.

We sat down with him and asked him a few questions. Here’s what he had to say.

Driver’s Seat: You grew up in Southeast Michigan, home of the Detroit Three. Did that influence your career choice when you majored in industrial engineering?

Chris Nielsen: My mom is a General Motors retiree and my dad worked a little bit in the auto industry when he served his electrician apprenticeship at Chrysler. My sister still works for GM. I vowed I would never work in the auto industry.

Really? Why?

Because that’s what everyone else did. I wanted to set my own path and be unique. But the school I went to, Kettering University, has a really close connection to the automotive industry and you’re required to co-op the entire time you’re in school. In doing that I picked up good practical knowledge and got a sense of what I like to do. I decided early on I didn’t want to be a hard core engineer. I wanted to have that kind of background, but be more in a business-type setting.

Your first job at Toyota was in 1987 as a buyer at TMMK. What was it like working at Toyota’s first North American plant?

I went into it with the thought that this was an adventure. It was almost like a startup. I remember walking into my first day on the job, kind of expecting to be handed the playbook on what do as a buyer. But the first thing I was asked to do was to design a purchase order. We didn’t have purchase orders so we couldn’t buy things from suppliers. So I drew one out by hand and took it to a print shop. That was one of the things that was so cool to me even though Toyota was a big company. We were a startup in North America, as far as that was the first manufacturing plant. So we did a lot of things that as a young person you felt like you were immediately making a significant impact.

Did you expect to stay for 30 years?

I always felt like I was in the right place. At Toyota we always talk about our philosophy, our foundation, our belief in the Toyota Way, respect for people and continuous improvement. To me, those values have always resonated with me, they align with my values. It’s pretty significant to be able to say that after 30 years with the company, there’s never been a single time where I felt like anything I was asked to do compromised my values whatsoever. I take tremendous pride in who we are as a company.

You’ve moved around a lot with the company. Do you still feel like a Michigander?

I’m a Michigander as far as heritage goes, but I’ve picked up different bits and pieces of places I’ve gone. A silly example: Folks always ask you what sports teams you follow. In my case, I’ve kind of spread it around. My college teams are Michigan for football. I lived for nine years in Lexington, Ky., so it’s Kentucky for basketball, which is my wife’s alma mater. I lived in Cincinnati for 13 or 14 years, so I have Bengals for football. I lived in San Antonio, so I like the Spurs for basketball. But we’ve been in Dallas for a couple of years and we actually had a family meeting to decide this. We decided we’re going to stick with the Bengals for a few years for football. Of course we like the Cowboys. We switched our allegiance from the Cincinnati Reds to the Texas Rangers. So we’re coming over. I feel like it’s the same way with me. I’ve tried to connect and engage wherever I’ve lived.

What was it like serving on the headquarters relocation team that ultimately brought Toyota to Plano?

I’m a member of the Project Management Office (PMO), which is the group that oversees all of the One Toyota transition. What was exciting was the focus was always on our team members, whether it was site selection where factors like cost of living, quality of life, schools and all of those things were front and center to aligning policies and compensation and benefits. It was all very focused on creating the best team member experience in bringing the organization together.

How would you explain your current job as senior vice president of Product Support?

Our role is primarily operational and our focus is really on the customer. Whether it’s product safety or product quality or the planning of production or logistics or the service parts operation, it’s all about satisfying customers. It’s quality of the product, having the product delivered, and parts on time for a dealer or manufacturing plant. We’re a mechanism that can make everything work in support of the product and customer and all of the other functions. What’s really neat is we’re a true integrating organization with 60 percent of the team members coming from Toyota Motor Services (TMS) and 40 percent from TEMA. It’s great being able to see the unified One Toyota culture coming together.

You’ve been in that job since January 2016, and then in January 2017 you became Chief Quality Officer. What does that entail?

The Chief Quality Officer is expected to set the direction and mindset for quality in terms of the hoshin priorities. It includes important activities like Customer First Confirmation Day every February and Quality Month in October. It ensures we are carefully following all of the commitments we’ve made in terms of being transparent and responsive for any kinds of concerns that arise in the field. One of the things I’ve always taken tremendous pride in is when you meet people and say you work for Toyota. People love our product. It’s a rare day when you tell somebody you work for Toyota they don’t have something good to say. It’s important for all of us to remain laser focused to make sure that doesn’t change. Our reputation for quality, durability and reliability is essential to our brand. For me the CQO is an opportunity for me to play a big role to make sure we earn that confidence and trust in the customer. There’s nothing more important than our reputation and the trust we have with our customer. Anything I can do to play a role to continue that, I want to do.

What does your typical day look like?

My organization touches a little bit of everything.  I’m a big believer in genchi genbutsu. It’s important to get around and not just understand, but be able to engage and interact with the whole organization regardless of location. My organization is very geographically dispersed, so even after we complete the move to Plano, we still have Toyota Logistics Services with the ports and their presence at each of the manufacturing plants and service parts operations spread throughout North America. I was able to travel to about 80 percent of my locations last year and I’m hoping to finish the rest in short order.

What are the toughest decisions you have to make?

The most important decisions we make are always about people. That’s one of the things I’m most excited about with One Toyota. We just opened the door to a flood of new opportunities for our people. People are often surprised at the processes in place and that we devote a lot of time talking about succession and development. There’s nothing we do that’s more important than the time we spend on that issue.

Embracing Texas -- The Nielsen family loves sports and is (possibly) considering shifting their loyalty to more Texas teams.

What do you do for fun?

I have three boys, ages 18, 15 and 11, and the years you have with your kids at home are precious.  So my wife, Nicole, and I decided that we want to be really focused on doing things with them. I travel a lot and don’t have a 9-5 kind of job, like I experienced with my dad. When I’m home I’m 100 percent engaged in whatever I’m doing. My oldest son is interested in adventure sports. He loves snowboarding and got me up on skis in my mid-40s. We started scuba diving about two years ago and have completed three levels of certification. My middle son loves any sport that involves a ball. He’s into football and baseball, and I was the assistant coach on his baseball team last year. The youngest is heading down the path, more like the oldest. His big thing is rock climbing, so he competes on a team. He hasn’t gotten me up on the wall yet, but that’s coming.

Any secret talents?

I’m a relatively modest person, but I will take credit for being a master on the grill. I have great confidence in my ability to take any kind of protein and make it on the grill. My next step is to learn how to use the smoker and I’m looking for good tips on that.

What’s your most embarrassing professional experience?

It was when I was working at TMMTX, about midway through my term there, I went out to one of the sections of the assembly line. I had on a hard hat, safety glasses, steel-toed shoes and a high-visibility vest, so I thought I was all set. I started walking down the line and a team member made a motion and pointed to my ears to put hearing protection on. So here I am, the plant president. I’m supposed to be setting the example and I’m out there blatantly violating one of the safety requirements. In my defense, I found out that the requirements had been recently changed. I was embarrassed and apologized for setting this bad example, but later on we made a positive out of that. We realized it was a big deal that this team member felt comfortable to say that to me, which is exactly the kind of behavior we want. We want people, if they see that something’s not right, to say that. We actually ended up giving that guy a special safety recognition award because we thought it set the right example that even the president should not be immune from being called out to doing the right thing.

What are you driving?

A Tundra, of course. I have the Tundra TRD Pro CrewMax, in the new cement color, on order.

By Karen Nielsen (also a Michigan native, but no relation)

Editor's Note: Friday is Customer First Confirmation Day, marking the anniversary of Akio Toyoda's testimony in front of Congress regarding Toyota's unintended acceleration recall crisis. On that day, be on the lookout for an all team-member email from Nielsen, and a customer-service video on My Toolbox. 


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