The Toyota Way

Just as soldiers on the ground can tell you how badly a battle is going (despite the efforts of politicians and military brass to paint a rosier picture), workers in an auto manufacturing plant can tell you what kinds of cars are rolling off the assembly line.  This is particularly true of American union workers, who know they can speak the truth without fear of company reprisals

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way in Japanese factories.  For several years now, going back at least to 2000, union workers at Toyota assembly plants in Japan had been concerned about the decline in product quality.

Tadao Wakatsuki, 62, was one such worker.  Wakatsuki and other members of the union he helped form (the All Toyota Labor Union) watched with increasing alarm as the company took shortcuts with product quality and factory working conditions in order to fulfill the demands of the burgeoning American market. More cars, more compromises, more risks.  What led Wakatsuki and his fellow workers to form their own union was the belief that the current one as ineffective and company-shy.

In a 2006 memo, Wakatsuki’s newly formed union reminded company executives that from 2000 to 2005, Toyota had recalled, for various reasons, more than 5 million cars, which represented more than one-third of all Toyotas sold, a staggering figure (and a revelation to most observers).

These workers blamed the recalls on a lack of adherence to traditional Toyota quality standards.  As Wakatsuki noted, every single car that came off the assembly line used to be tested for safety and quality.  By 2006, they were inspecting barely 60-percent of them.

And what was the result of the memo?  As expected, the executives did not respond.  “They completely ignored us,” Wakatsuki said.  “That’s the Toyota way.”

To be fair, Toyota’s “sin” wasn’t in letting bad product reach the public.  After all, lapses in quality can happen to any manufacturer, no matter how diligent.  Rather, it was the circumstances that led to the defects and Toyota’s response to the problem…..which is why there is a congressional investigation.

First, the safety defects appear to have been the result of manufacturing shortcuts (a reduction in quality control measures)—shortcuts that were pointed out well in advance of the problem, but willfully ignored.  Second, if we’re to believe what’s been reported, Toyota’s initial response was, reflexively, not only to avoid any culpability, but to actually conceal the problem.

Not to be morbid here—given that nearly 60 motorists have died from sudden acceleration attributable to engineering defects—but if we’re looking for a silver lining, it can be found in the fact that Toyota’s massive recall and accompanying public embarrassment may have succeeded in debunking, once and for all, the myth of Japanese invincibility.

For decades, the view that Japanese engineering and craftsmanship were superior to that of the U.S. has led consumers to avoid purchasing American cars (a phenomenon that nearly ruined Detroit), and, indirectly, to adopting the view that American workers were inferior to Japanese workers.  Indeed, I had friends who more or less ridiculed me for owning a Ford and a Buick, as if these cars were primitive junk.

And as to the American worker’s inferiority or shoddiness, even foreign automakers themselves don’t believe in this silly myth.  Proof?  Toyota, Nissan, Subaru, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Hyundai, Kia, Volkswagen, et al, have seen fit to have U.S. workers assemble their cars.  My friend’s 1989 Honda Accord, a car whose craftsmanship and reliability he regularly brags about, was assembled in Marysville, Ohio.

The critical lesson supplied by the Toyota recall is this:  We—the consumers, the public, the government—simply cannot trust the profit motive.  Unless properly regulated and supervised, the temptation to make greater and greater profits will always trump the impulse to proceed with caution.  Alas, some people actually thought Japan was immune to such an impulse.  Probably the same people who thought we could trust Wall Street.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” (available at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.) He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

WORDS THAT STICK

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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