NPR Does a Great Job of Covering Toyota


Following The Toyota Way, For Better Or Worse : NPR (listen or read)

I'll hand it to NPR, they generally do a much better job understanding and covering Toyota than the Wall Street Journal, NY Times, or Reuters.

Tuesday, there was a piece that explored The Toyota Way and Toyota's management system, much more accurately than the other media.

The piece wasn't a total Toyota love-fest, thankfully, a good balanced report.

In contrast to GM and Chrysler, the Japanese carmaker has not yet laid off any full-time staff and has not sought government assistance. Efficiency and thrift have so far been the company's saving virtues, although some critics believe that Toyota has taken these qualities a bit too far.

How do you take those qualities too far? If they are so thrifty, why did Toyota overexpand?

While lifetime employment has always been a key Toyota policy, it has had to cut around 9,000 temporary workers in recent months.

It starts to sound like a real technicality that Toyota never lays anyone off when they have that many temps?

NPR goes back to the Toyota loom-making days and the introduction of error proofing:

To really understand the Toyota Way, it helps to look at the company's origins. Before Toyota started making cars in the 1930s, it built automatic looms for the silk industry centered in the city of Nagoya.

One of the company's innovations was a loom that would stop immediately if a single thread broke. Tokyo-based Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco explains that if a Toyota worker discovers a defect in a car, he is now required to stop the whole assembly line by pulling a string hanging overhead.

“The idea is to stop the problem at the source,” he says. “In the case of producing vehicles, as soon as you stop the production there, you don't have to go tracking back to find out where something went wrong.”

There is some honest criticism from a Japanese Toyota employee, who says:

But Ishida says that Toyota should have used its cash reserves to save temporary workers' jobs. He says that there's a fine line between thrift and stinginess, especially on some assembly lines, where workers race to assemble a car in less than 60 seconds.

“It's great that you can assemble a car in one minute and eliminate waste,” he says. “For the company, it's an economically efficient way of making cars. But I understand Europeans get breaks. We, too, should have this humane touch in our system. You should at least have a second to wipe the sweat off your brow.”

Sounds like Ishida doesn't agree that the “respect for people” principle of Toyota is always followed?

A Toyota assembly line designer thinks that the company, for the most part, does a good job in this regard:

How tough the assembly line is depends in part on its creator. Shigenobu Matsubara has helped design assembly lines from Japan to Georgetown, Ky., which has the biggest in the United States. He says he has always designed the lines with the workers' welfare in mind.

How tough the assembly line is depends in part on its creator. Shigenobu Matsubara has helped design assembly lines from Japan to Georgetown, Ky., which has the biggest in the United States. He says he has always designed the lines with the workers' welfare in mind.

“The workers liked me for this,” he says. “But there are other ways of applying the Toyota Way. Some Toyota designers and engineers treat the workers as disposable, just like a machine. They give them big burdens and try to extract the maximum from them.”

Is it surprising that there's so much variation here? You'd think that Toyota would have a standardized way of designing assembly lines so that it wasn't so dependent on WHO the designer was…

The topic of standardized work and work methods did come up:

Toyota's corporate culture is surely one of Japan's strongest, and Ishida says he's never felt comfortable with what he considers the company's overbearing paternalism. He says that Toyota basically asks employees to leave Japan's constitution outside the company's fences.

Toyota “educates the workers a way that's quite special, even insane,” says retired Toyota worker Shunichi Sakae. “I've always been impressed by the fact that workers talk about it like it's a normal thing, but it's not,” he continues. “For example, when walking down the corridor from one office to another, you're supposed to turn at right angles. You're not allowed to cut corners.”

Does anyone know the story behind turning at right angles? Is this for safety? Having standardized methods is the core of any Lean environment… at what point does it become overbearing or paternalistic? That's a judgment call.

I'm no constitutional law expert, but it seems that your company asking you (or even forcing you) to work a certain way isn't a violation of the First Amendment in the U.S. Hospitals shouldn't allow nurses to choose to NOT gown up properly when entering an isolation room. If and when the process is not followed, it's not a matter of “free expression” it's a matter of people “cutting corners” in the figurative sense, not the above literal sense.

Toyota, Honda Manage Global Economic Downturn : NPR (listen)

Today had a piece that talked about the struggles of both Toyota and Honda, with a comparison that Honda has been much more conservative about growth and that maybe Toyota got sidetracked by wanting to become the largest automaker?

Again, bravo to NPR for their Toyota and lean coverage.

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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. I worked for Toyota for 13 years, 3.5 of them living and working in Japan, and I never saw the right angle thing. I’m pretty observant about that kind of stuff.

    As for the constitutional stuff, the only thing I can think of that was “law breaking”, though not necessarily “unconstitutional” was the abuse of overtime limit laws. My understanding is that Toyota has become better at following those laws for their hourly and non-managerial staff, but they still cheat. One way around the limits was to “promote” a lot of people to “manager” and therefore exempt them from OT limits. So, most staffers now leave at 530PM, but “managers” stay until after midnight most nights (my understanding).

  2. I can’t speak for Toyota, but at Kodak there were clearly designated walkways where ever humans and vehicles might interact. Those walkways were indicated by white lines. Right after I hired in, I was walking through a dead-end alley between two buildings. I started to cut the corner, and was immediately corrected by another team member. After that I paid attention. In this company that struggled with maintaining standards, staying between those white lines was something that everybody did, and everybody expected everybody else to do. We used it as an example – that it certainly is possible for Kodak to adopt and follow a standard. In this case it was a safety protocol, but it had embedded into the unconscious culture, and someone not conforming really stood out.

  3. Hi there,
    I work for Toyota’s Asian regional office in Singapore doing Kaizen for dealer operations. The biggest trend we find in improving the processes is that you may have the best standard of all, but to get the frontline staff to follow the standard is the difficult part. To do this, the standard should come from their ideas thru constant coaching and mentoring by management. This is in the form of a “senpai”, as Phil probably knows, or in other words, mentor.

    In terms of “constitutional” reference, in fact, we often say it’s like a cult in Toyota, but not in a bad way. Once you so called “get it”, you do it almost subconciously, but definitely not forcefully. Toyota management has their way to help you reach that point, which is thru the “senpai” relationship. I’ve never been scolded or yelled at. My manager’s role if something goes wrong, is to ask himself we he can do better next time to support my performance. If the process is not followed, he should be asking what is restricting me from following it. And this is where Toyota’s strength is.


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