Toyota, Layoffs, Stabbings, and Respect for People


The Associated Press: Toyota lays off 800 line workers at Japan plant

I'm starting to cut Toyota less slack for their claims of not having laid off employees in over 50 years.

Japanese automaker Toyota has laid off 800 people at a plant in southwestern Japan, or about 10 percent of the plant's work force, in response to declining sales in North America, a company official said Tuesday.

All the job cuts — carried out in June and August at Toyota Motor Corp.'s wholly owned subsidiary Toyota Motor Kyushu — applied to workers sent by job-referral agencies. Japanese companies are increasingly relying on such agencies for temporary workers called “haken” to be flexible to market demand.

OK, they aren't employees… but they are people. The Toyota Way principles include the “respect for humanity” – not just “respect for employees.”

I never realized the guy who went on the stabbing spree in Japan was a Toyota contract worker until I read this article.

The trend toward these temporary workers drew alarm in Japan when a disgruntled haken employee at a Toyota affiliate went on stabbing spree in June in a crowded Tokyo shopping district, killing seven and injuring 10.

The remarks of Tomohiro Kato, the 25-year-old haken worker, expressing frustrations about job stability and getting treated with no respect, added to the public worries about the trend.

This doesn't shake my belief that Lean and TPS methods (and the management system) are the best options we have for improving manufacturing, healthcare and other industries. It does, though, highlight that Toyota is not perfect, in their following of their principles or in their treatment of people. I don't know the details of “no respect” at the Toyota, but constantly having to worry about being laid off can certainly feel disrespectful.

This shouldn't discredit Lean, though. It just shows how hard it can be for anyone to live up to the high ideals set forth in the Toyota Way.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Good post. That is unnerving that such a situation could happen where a person would be driven to stabbing and madness. Surely the management needs to realign their objectives and make sure that their strategy fits with its capabilities.

  2. Toyota’s management may be beter than that at many Japanese companies. My (limited) knowledge of that culture and societal norms suggests to me that Toyota may be trying to buck an ingrained system. Japanese workplaces are commonly abusive, negative, extremely hierarchical, and bureaucratic. Workers have little to no say in how their work is to be done, commonly work very long hours for no good reason, and often have many aspects of their personal lives interferred with by their company. We have a tendency to hold Toyota up to an extremely high standard and often place them on some form of pedestal. That is our mistake, not Toyota’s. We should understand their actions within the context of Japanese culture, not American.

  3. An interesting read is Notes from Toyota-land. It is a not-so-favorable viewpoint of an engineer working for a Japanese auto maker. (Title reference seems to be a “lean” body slam vs. a “Toyota” body slam, as the engineer doesn’t indicate that he actually worked for Toyota.)

    Anyway, his description of the company is one that is harsh, tedious, hierarchical, etc. I don’t think Toyota is perfect. Neither are the Lean principles. This is why it is called continous improvement. I imagine that it is an extremely stressful work environment at Toyota, given the inherent sensitivity of Lean systems. Regardles, these principles have proven to be the best in exposing problems in the business and providing managers an opportunity to lead and engage workers.

    Toyota has long relied on contract workers to flex their workforce, much like they flex their inventory to absorb fluctuations. The reality is this, temporary workforces have protected the jobs of permanent workers for decades at Toyota. This practice is not a foreign one to U.S. companies. I think you are right Mark in saying that this isn’t a Lean problem. It is a problem to be solved by leaders.

  4. Laying off employees, whether permanent or temps, is certainly not desirable. All people have skills, knowledge, and creativity to contribute. Layoffs negate that obviously. This is certainly not the Toyota Way.

    That being said, I don’t think Toyota is totally wrong in expanding and contracting their workforce to smooth out the “mura” inherent with customer demand. This is different than getting rid of employees who have “kaizened” their processes to the point where less headcount is needed. This is a mortal sin in the Lean world, and should never be tolerated!

    While not totally in the wrong, I still don’t think Toyota is living up to Principle #1 of the Toyota Way: “Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.” But, they’re not operating in a vacuum either, so some understanding is warranted.

  5. I am currently a “contract” worker with Toyota Motor Manufacturing.

    Firstly, contract workers are told up front that they are there to help with the ups and downs of market conditions. Yes, everyday I am worried about my job security and my family especially in times like these but what they do “promise” is that all permanent status team members are signed on “for life”. This promise has been made very clear to those workers in San Antonio who are no longer building the Tundra…all permanent employees are still working. Our sales have dropped over 35% on some models…I am still working and getting paid. If this was GM…we all know where I would be.

    Secondly, I am treated with the same respect as full time team members and I’m given almost the same benefits – continuing education fully paid for, very good medical benefits, elegibility for bonuses and internal education, not to mention the $$$ – “Respect for People” is one of the supporting pillars for the Toyota Way, the other is continuous improvement. For continuous improvement (Kaizen), we are paid for our suggestions and if we start a kaizen group we are all paid for that too. When team members kaizen processes down so lean that less team members are needed, Toyota will not lay off any team members…they will simply not hire another team member and may also transfer team members around.

    “While not totally in the wrong, I still don’t think Toyota is living up to Principle #1 of the Toyota Way: “Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.” – do you think that developing the team members and kaizening processes during weeks and months of non production is investing in long term objectives while putting short term budgets at a loss…? You have some nice key words: muda, muri, mura, kaizen, Toyota Way, Toyota Production System – but you have lost the meaning and you obviously haven’t seen it practiced.

    Thirdly, as a contract team member, I look forward to improved market conditions and a time when I can be hired to permanent status. I knew the risk before accepting the position as do all new team members. I am proud to work for one of the most elite manufacturing companies in the world.


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