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Drum Circles at Toyota

By Christine Stevens

Leave the conservative confines of Toyota Motor Sales USA's corporate headquarters and walk through a bead-draped doorway into a darkened room where you listen to the rhythmic pulse of a most impressive collection of African drums and percussion instruments. Yes, you're still at the corporate headquarters of Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc. in Torrance, California, however, you're now at the experiential edge of education and personal development. Actually, associates who enter the soothing chamber are at University of Toyota's Drum Circle; a collaborative musical event where individuals learn the harmony of teamwork - and teams learn the value of individual contributions. The quality of the music produced at an event like this is not based on the rhythmical expertise of the players, but on the quality of their relationship with the other people in the circle. The result is those magical musical moments where one powerful voice is created out of the many.

It really makes people aware of the power of diversity and inclusiveness. Every voice offered into the community drum circle changes it and takes it to a higher level. The Toyota Drum Circle challenges traditional training paradigms. Participants are immersed in an entirely new environment where traditional roles and skills are replaced by a whole new world of sights, sounds and a driving rhythm. The experience is effective because it helps us talk about traditional challenges - barriers to teamwork, roles on the team and inclusion - in non-traditional ways.

We find that people like to be engaged. Drumming is expressive, a unique way of sharing a sense of community. After making music together, participants may find it easier to come together to resolve a challenge or conflict, or to work through a problem. The drum circle experience also may help participants celebrate an accomplishment, providing an opportunity to literally beat the drum and say, "Look what we did!"

The Toyota Drum Circle is an extraordinary, first-of-its-kind experiment in the use of on-going music making for corporate teambuilding, stress-reduction, and change management. And the drummers you may hear aren't musicians and performers; they are associates of Toyota, drumming to build the level of teamwork in their respective departments.

According to Midge Waters, associate Dean of the University of Toyota, the primary benefits of the drum circles for Toyota include; experiencing a "high-performance team," morale building, interpersonal connecting, and experiencing teamwork. "It's an opportunity for our associates to listen to each other and put their personal creativity into the process."

Just one component of an incredibly successful corporate philosophy that associates refer to as the "Toyota Way," the drum circles echo two core values; Respect for People and Continuous Improvement. Through the drum circle, active music making gives associates a hands-on experience in the Toyota values within a unique and unforgettable context of fun and community-building.

And the transfer is obvious. As corporations continue to explore best practices in training and maintaining a loyal workforce, the Toyota experience of using music making may be the beginning of a national trend.

Known to the music products industry as "recreational music making," Toyota exemplifies the paradigm change towards making music for non-musical outcomes. In the case of Toyota, these outcomes are workplace driven; however, hospitals, wellness centers, and community groups are incorporating recreational drumming and drum circles into programs aimed at giving people tools to enhance their quality of life on the job or at home.

Business Unusual Facilitated by Ron "RJ" Johnson, Associate Development Manager for the Center for the Toyota Way at Toyota Motor Sales' Corporate University, drum circles are taking place on an average of twice a week. Sessions are available on request to any teams or departments within Toyota.

The Toyota Drum Circle is an environment where no one is advantaged or disadvantaged and where the participants create an inclusive environment where 'we' means 'everyone'," says RJ. Through the experience we emulate high-performance team behaviors by accepting that people look at differences, speak to differences and contribute out of differences. It's the leveraging of our diversity through this inclusive behavior that can bring the full creative potential of our associates to bear. The healthy interpersonal behaviors that are exhibited in the drum circle serve as a powerful metaphor of high-performance teaming."

Initially exposed to drum circles over three years ago by Remo artist Arthur Hull at the American Society of Training and Developers (ASTD) conference in Dallas Texas, RJ became inspired to bring community drumming to Toyota as a means to bring out the full potential of its associates. "The Toyota Drum Circle experience creates a safe, risk-free, collaborative environment where people can create inspiring rhythms in the moment," RJ explains. "I know that when we drum together as a community and share our spirit in the form of rhythm, it changes our relationships for the positive. As we play together, we entrain into a rhythmical spirit of camaraderie, where differences are recognized, embraced and heard. It's through this inclusive behavior that we can truly leverage our unique diversity."

Through an on-going mentorship with Paulo Mattioli, a professional drum circle facilitator, performer, drum designer and Remo signature artist, RJ has transformed himself from the twenty-two year, corporate veteran to the inspirational facilitator, known to his fellow-associates as the "drum guy." The relationship began when RJ contacted Paulo to facilitate a Drum Circle to enhance communication between two diverse teams at Toyota, the parts department and the engineers who designed their new software. Toyota's Monarch Project manager, Nancy Meyers recalls of Paulo's work, "The strong message of community served to inspire our newly formed team and helped us hear and respect all the different voices within… Based on the incredibly positive feedback I received from my 60+ team members, I'd say the drum circle was a huge success!"

The successful application of drum circles within Toyota inspired a co-operative effort between RJ and Paulo that culminated in the birthing of the first dedicated "Drum Room" within a major corporation. RJ cites Paulo's "Rhythm Journey" Drum Circle facilitation training and his experience at the "Rhythm Village", a multi-cultural drumming retreat produced by Paulo, as playing a key role in developing his facilitation skills. They then worked together to carefully select a diverse assortment of REMO world percussion instruments, including a collection of over 135 African Djembes, Djundjuns and Ashikos. "We investigated several drum manufacturers but the REMO drums offered the most durability and user friendliness, as well as a variety of sounds and colors that really worked for this application," says RJ.

Since opening The Drum Room in March 2001, over 3,000 associates have taken the rhythmic journey toward higher individual and team performance. Toyota honored both Paulo Mattioli and Arthur Hull by dedicating the Drum Room to them with a drum circle celebration facilitated by Paulo. RJ recalls of the event, "It was, indeed, an incredible adventure in team-building for our associates… with the inherent diversity of ethnicity, gender, rank and personality among our members. It is critical that we work in harmony, together as a team and I believe that we will be successful because of our experience in the Rhythm Community that you helped us discover."


“The Toyota Drum Circle is an extraordinary, first-of-its-kind experiment in the use of on-going music making for corporate teambuilding, stress-reduction, and change management.”

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