Genchi Genbutsu. That’s Toyota speak for seeing for yourself, a key principle of the famed Toyota Production System. Basically, it promotes the act of turun padang and learning about the issue at hand, at the source. Besides the original application of the factory shop floor, this could be one of the best examples of Genchi Genbutsu.

Toyota is in the business of making cars, and it’s a global auto giant present in virtually every country and market in the world. What better way to understand the various markets than actually driving on local roads, experiencing conditions unique to the area, and using the cars like customers do? That’s gemba at work and the spirit behind the Toyota 5 Continents Drive.

The Toyota 5 Continents Drive may sound like a non-stop adventure of a lifetime across the globe – at least that was what this writer initially thought – but it’s actually a multi-year programme that started in 2014, tackling one continent at a time, with cars specific to the area. Toyota employees (mostly from TMC in Japan, but joined by associates from the region as well as those from affiliated companies) take turns behind the wheel, relay style, and share their experiences internally.

The ultimate goal is to “create ever better cars” via the real-world testing, something that simulation and test courses can’t fully replicate. However, the project – parked under Toyota Gazoo Racing – is not focused on data and serious research, but more on experiences. Exposing R&D team members to the different cultures of the world will be eye-opening and beneficial to their day jobs – “develop human resources” is mentioned more than once by Toyota.

In 2014, the Australian leg of the 5 Continents Drive started and ended in Melbourne, where the Toyota Motor Corporation Australia (TMCA) plant is located. Eighty team members drove 13 cars in a loop of the giant island, and the feat was completed in 72 days.

The following year, the project tackled North America. The adventure started in summer 2015 in Texas, heading to the East Coast and then across USA, passing through Canada and Mexico. In the winter of that year, Toyota employees drove through Canada and Alaska. The 140-strong team chalked up 28,000 km in 109 days, in 23 different models.

Latin America was next. In the summer of 2016, the drive was flagged off in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The team traversed the Andes Mountains of Chile, Peru and Bolivia, and continuing through Argentina and Uruguay as winter approached. In 78 days, the contingent of 118 drivers covered 20,413 km in 16 cars.

Something different came in August 2017, when the project landed in Europe “seeking to discover the secrets of vehicles manufactured in Europe, the birth place of car culture, and to meet the high expectations of customers worldwide.” Toyota is being honest here – Detroit was an automotive powerhouse and Japan makes fantastic cars, but the continent is home to the top exotic and luxury/premium carmakers.

The Big T said that the Euro tour, which covered 21,000 km in 85 days, allowed it to compile and analyse real-time driving data, which cannot be obtained on test courses. Everything from a GT86 to the Proace van were tested. From the mountain passes of Europe to the plains of Africa, the next stop of the drive in 2018. A total of 76 people from Toyota, Suzuki and truck maker Hino participated in the 10,600 km drive over a period of two months. Interestingly, a Ford Ranger was part of the convoy.

Company president and icon Akio Toyoda also makes it a point to drive in each continent in the same year as the 5C team, although the keen driver does what he likes to do – transform into his Morizo race driver alter ego – instead of slogging through normal roads for days. His “special stages” saw him going to rally school in a 4WD GT86 to surfing the sand dunes of the Sahara in a Land Cruiser. Rare for a car company boss, Toyoda looks like he really enjoys days away from the office.

After Oceania, the Americas, Europe and Africa, the 5C project comes “home” for the last stage – Asia will complete the five rings of the symbol of the Olympics, of which Toyota is an official sponsor. In February this year, the road to Asia started in the Middle East, and the team had a “nerve-racking” start in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Watch the video below for a summary of the team’s Arabian adventure, which ended in Dubai in March.

After a short break, the expedition continued in September in India, the start of what Toyota calls the South Asian leg. In the subcontinent, Toyota employees were joined by their counterparts from Suzuki – Toyota and the small car expert have had a good working relationship, cemented in August by cross buying of shares. Of course, no one knows India better than perennial market leader Maruti Suzuki, which helps with the 5C Drive’s ultimate mission of learning.

From there, a convoy passed through Myanmar and Thailand, and the team is now in Malaysia. With a fresh set of wheels provided by local distributor UMW Toyota Motor (UMWT), the Malaysian leg of the expedition was flagged off two days ago at S&D Tama, a Toyota 3S dealership in Penang.

We were there to witness the flag off and managed to have a short chat with senior team members, which included Chomchan Leelaphongprasut (pic below), who is from Toyota Daihatsu Engineering & Manufacturing, Toyota’s regional R&D centre in Thailand. The vehicle dynamics engineer told us that they’ve covered 4,000 km in the South Asia sector so far (103,000 km in total since 2014), and after Malaysia, the route will pass Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

After the tour of ASEAN, it’s China, South Korea and Taiwan before the 5 Continents Drive concludes in Japan, in time for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games

Chan-san, in his second 5C Drive stint after Myanmar, reiterated that the 5 Continents Drive isn’s so much about hard research, but learning. “No data, just feeling, learning the type of road, feeling the road and the type of usage (in each country),” he said, adding that the main point of this programme is “to develop human resources, putting them in a new environment, together with new people, doing new things.”

“If you don’t understand the culture, you won’t understand how the customer uses the car,” Chomchan continued. Team captain Kazuaki Abiru chipped in, saying that a programme such as this helps to “polish our senses”. Abiru is from TMC’s advanced vehicle engineering development division, so what he learns counts.

The eagle eyed may have spotted a Perodua Alza sticking out from UMWT’s range of vehicles, and the reason it’s there is because “we want to learn from the other companies.” I’d think that the Myvi would be a better sample of Malaysian motoring, given that it’s a best seller and that it was designed in-house by Perodua (the Alza was sold in Japan as the Daihatsu Passo Sette/Toyota Boon Luminas), but the MPV does take in more luggage.

From Penang, the 33-strong 5C convoy (with four members from UMWT) drove south and stopped in Ipoh en route to Cameron Highlands, where they engaged with some customers. The team would have reached UMWT’s headquarters in Shah Alam today, before proceeding to Singapore. All the best for the remainder of the journey, ganbatte!