Interview with Darius Mehri, Author of “Notes from Toyota-land”

Today we continue exploring the dark side of Lean as we interview Darius Mehri, author of Notes from Toyota-land. Darius is an American who spent three years working as an engineer in Japan at a Toyota group company. He changed the name of the company in his book to “Nizumi”. The book is a result of a journal he kept while in Japan and a revealing look at the dark side of Lean.

Darius, welcome.
Thank you.
What is the main message that you wanted to get out to your readers by writing this book?
I wanted people in the Unites States and people outside of Japan to get a different perspective on what Lean work is about. Even though there are a lot of good books out there and some of them make really good points I think they don’t provide a comprehensive picture of what it’s like to work in a Japanese company.
What was your experience with traditional (non-Lean) manufacturing before going to Japan?
Basically none. I graduated with a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and went to work as an engineer.
How much did you know about Lean manufacturing before going to Japan?
Basically nothing. I didn’t read anything on Lean. I read the popular books on Japan like “Japan is Number One” and other books mostly written in the 1980s, the bubble years. They didn’t talk much about manufacturing but mostly what it’s like in the office.
What was your direct experience with kaizen while in Japan?
One of the real strengths of the system is that as an engineer there was always a focus not only on designing really good products but on improving them. I was really impressed with the level of detail that my colleagues were involved in during the design process. For example there was a product that was produced with some design flaws which were occurring at a site in central Asia. They immediately send an engineer to that country to study what the problems were, they came back with solutions and within 2 or 3 months the problem was fixed. That was really impressive. I think that’s one of the strengths of Japan.
You’ve been back in the U.S. for six years. How did your experience in Japan change how you work today?
I had a much better understanding of products are never perfect but working to perfect those products is very important. I think my experience there made me a highly skilled engineer. One thing they were doing was integrating computer software tools in the design process. They were doing design in a very different way. What I observed was more of an inductive process. They analyze competitors’ products and come up with some of their own ideas to make a product. Also one of the things which I think is very characteristic of what’s going on in the factories is that the Japanese are very visual. You see pictures all over the place instructing the workers how to do things. How to hold a welding torch, etc. I think they do that well. It’s really a very quick way of learning.
Now that you’re back in the United States What has been your experience with Lean manufacturing now that you are back in the United States?
(Laughs) There hasn’t been any. I haven’t observed what’s going on here. I’ve worked in all small software companies here.
Lean hasn’t taken over software yet?
No. Not that I know of. One of the things I did bring back was an understanding of how the Japanese solve problems. A lot of Westerners design software products with a lot of English words on them. If they replaced those words with pictures it would be a lot more accessible.
Toyota today describes TPS as built on the two pillars of “kaizen” and “respect for people”. Based on what you documented in your book about Nizumi, a Toyota company do you think the two pillars there were a total lie or was it a failure of good intentions?
I think the first part, kaizen, is definitely there. I think the answer has as much to do with the structure of the organization and commitment of the managers to implement as with the political economy of the country. One of the things about managers in Japan is that they aren’t concerned about short term profits. They don’t have to worry about stock market values. They think long-term. Their whole focus is on designing good products. There are limitations on owning stock if you are a manager in your company. But as far as “respect for workers” goes I think it’s a myth. Working in Japan I experienced very long working hours. One of the things I observed was that Lean also means cutting back on personnel and overloading workers. So there’s another side to what Lean is about. I think a lot of people, particularly academics who write about Lean, are either unaware of the problems or are aware of this but don’t write about it.
Many people have criticized the current literature praising Lean manufacturing as a partial and flawed view. Do you think your perspective on Lean manufacturing as a dysfunctional and harmful system is a more complete view or just a different view?
I think it’s a more complete view. I was able to meet a lot of different people in a lot of different companies. I joined some foreign worker professional organizations with people working in various Japanese companies and they had all very similar stories. They had very long working hours. For example the academics don’t talk about “service overtime”. That is a rule in Japanese companies for workers to work overtime, such as staying in their office late and you do overtime for free. That’s something they don’t write about yet it’s part of the working culture at most if not all Japanese companies. In the factory they will pay workers for overtime but they have to come to work early to clean machines and they don’t pay you for that. There’s also compulsory overtime and you don’t know when you’ll do overtime. So these are the things that are not mentioned or glossed over about Japanese companies.
In the introduction to your book you set out to “demolish the myth of the generous, paternalistic Japanese company.” I think you did a good job of that. You also say “Above all, this book shows how the famous Toyota production system has been devastating to its employees.” Do you think you achieved the second goal in your book, and if not do you still support this position?
It’s a two-edged sword. Japanese companies do things very effectively. I don’t think most Americans could survive in something like that. We’re not used to working that amount of hours. I think the Japanese don’t have the choice. There’s very limited labor mobility for the Japanese worker. You can’t move to another large company so the management isn’t incentivized to try to keep you at the company by improving the work environment. On the other hand, seeing restructuring in the United States and the talk of closing many factories I have second thoughts. Japanese managers don’t close factories as readily as in the U.S. because I think it’s related to economic nationalism. They see their national security directly correlated to industrial strength where in this country we view our national security directly correlated to our military strength. I think there are all sorts of rules and laws that are in place in Japan to keep factories open. For example even though restructuring is very, very hard and people don’t have a say at all in industrial policies, in Japan they don’t close any of the factories if they can get by with cutbacks. Looking from an organizational level it’s very effective.
On your website you say that your book was reviewed by “world-renowned experts on lean work” including Paul Adler, Professor at the Marshall School of Business of the University of Southern California and Steve Babson, labor scholar at Wayne State University. You also mention Ronald Dore, Professor at the London School of Economics, as well as Purdue University Professor Robert Perrucci who is a noted critic of corporate America and a strong union supporter. How do you think your conclusions about your experiences in Japan would have been different if your advisors had been Professors in Business, Operations Management or even Industrial Engineering?
It’s interesting that you ask that. When I went to Japan I had no intention of writing this book. I wrote a book because I wanted people to learn about the Toyota Production System. I had no angle or ideological focus, either pro-management or pro-union. I read a book by Robert Perrucci’s student Laurie Graham who had written a book on Japan that I thought was very accurate and that’s how I got hooked up with Robert Perrucci. If I had gone there with a different ideological perspective I may have seen things differently, but no.
You describe the factory work at Nizumi as dangerous, dirty and difficult. You write that Nizumi was number three from the bottom in the number of accidents per year in Japan, and that Nizumi talked about kaizen but didn’t do kaizen on the shop floor. This doesn’t sound very Lean to me. Is it possible that Nizumi is a not a good example of Lean production, and that truly Lean firms are much better places to work?
I don’t know. The whole issue about Lean work is basically a description of work at companies like the one I worked at, like working at Toyota. A graduate student at MIT went over there, studied it and coined the word Lean. From what I understand Nizumi used all of the same techniques on the factory such as kanban and the reduction of waste. Kaizen can be very useful and very productive. It’s the way it’s used, focusing on what the organization wants to do. You can use kaizen to get rid of waste, but Kaizen can negatively impact safety. My impression was that it was a Lean factory based on criteria defined by Western scholars.
Given the opportunity, would you work at a Toyota group company in Japan again?
(Laughs) Do you think they would hire me? I doubt that. No, I wouldn’t want to go back. At the time I was there it was a different time in my life where I could do something like that. I was single at the time. I was curious about what was going on in the world. I’m married now. Working those really long hours is not really appealing to me.
Even though the work life at a Toyota company in your experience is racist, sexist, bullying, causes death from overwork, death from being chewed up by machines running at dangerous speeds, and is highly dysfunctional, Toyota is building factories around the world while GM and Ford area shutting them down. Should we be concerned?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Even when the Japanese economy was tanking and they were going through very difficult times I always told people that there was no way that Japan was out of the picture. I saw for myself that they were committed to manufacturing and that they were improving their products, they were restructuring. But with that said if America did the right thing we could beat the pants off of Japan. One of the things we don’t have that Japanese don’t have is creativity. A lot of Japanese engineers told me that one of the problems they have is a lack of creativity. We have the innovation in America. I really strongly believe that American companies can take back lost market share if we reorganize and restructure.
With as popular as Lean manufacturing is today, are you concerned about the dark side of Lean taking over American work life?
Yes and no. I don’t think that would happen in the United States. There are a number of reasons why. First reason, there are very strong trade unions in the United States compared to Japan. There is the treat of organizing. The second reason is that there is also a very active, for lack of a better word, “legal culture” here. Japanese companies would be threatened by class action suits if they treated people here that way. Third, there’s a lot more labor mobility so that companies are incentivized to improve the work environment to keep the workers at the company. I just can’t see that a factory built by Toyota would be the same kind of oppressive workplace in America as it is in Japan.
You conclude you book by saying your journal testifies to “the bitter realities of the Toyota Production System”. What you’ve described in your book is the worst of the Japanese labor management system and perhaps the one practiced by Toyota but hardly a description the Toyota Production System as a whole. Do you disagree?
I think that Lean work and the Toyota Production System, if humanized, would be a really good thing. But they would have to do things like slowing down line speed, making sure that kaizen was implemented in a positive way, not just to improve production but to also improve the work environment. I think a lot of American companies are probably doing that, more so than in Japan. I attended a lecture at MIT with a professor who is working with Lean in of all places El Salvador. There’s tremendous competition with China. They’re in the garment industry. They used Lean to turn the company around and make it very profitable. But after implementing Lean work the turnover rate was 100%. So his job is now to humanize it. I think Lean work is here to stay. It would be good if people sat down to start thinking of ways to make it more humanistic.
You were at Nizumi during a bad time in Japan’s economy. In the last several years Japan’s economy has come roaring back largely due to government reforms and exports of equipment to China. How do you think this has changed manufacturing working life in Japan?
Only that people are getting more money now. Their bonuses are a lot higher. Other than that I don’t think it’s changed.
Have you shared your experiences with Japanese people since you’ve returned to the United States?
Yes.
What was their reaction?
Very good. I made a lot of contacts in Japan. They like exchanging views. They liked hearing what I had to say.
Have you thought about translating your book into Japanese and publishing it there?
That’s up to the publisher.
Would you like to see your book published in Japanese?
Yes, if possible. Sure. I don’t know how it would be received. I think there would be a lot of people happy that it was published there, especially at my old company in Japan. A lot of people were very angry about how things were with the working life.
If you could ask the Lean implementers and Lean promoters reading right now to one thing differently in promoting Lean, what would it be?
Cut the workers more slack. Slow down line speed and improve working conditions. Make sure it’s not too hot in the factory, make the work environment healthier. Things like that. I think you need to put in a system where you get a lot of feedback from workers about the work environment. I may be naïve but I think that workers want to be more productive. I think Lean implementers would benefit a lot form reading my book and understanding the background of Lean and what’s going on in Japan. For example in the United States there’s a lot more labor mobility. Here they can get up and leave. If you miss that point Lean could be a disaster for your company. It’s a good idea to keep these things in mind if you’re consulting.
You have an article coming out this month from the Academy of Management Perspectives. Can you give our readers a brief summary of your new article?
It’s basically a synopsis of my book. I believe Jeffrey Liker has an article coming out in the same issue. So it’s exposing the other side of Lean work. Jeffrey Liker has some very good points but he’s exaggerating the benefits.
Do you plan to continue your work with exposing the dark side of Lean?
No, I’ve already done that. I plan to do some comparative work in the States if possible, compare what’s going on in the United States with what is going on in Japan. I’m going to be in a PhD program at the University of California at Berkeley.
Darius, I want to thank you very much for your time today.
You’re welcome.
Learn more about Darius Mehri, his book and his work at his his website. You can buy his book online.
Tomorrow: Five Practical Ways to Stay on the Sunny Side of Lean

9 Comments

  1. Joe Wilson

    May 11, 2006 - 9:37 am

    I can’t speak to Mr Mehri’s specific experiences, but what he is describing in this interview and on his website seem to be the same things that happen in the good old people loving USA. I certainly can speak to having seen and experienced what he has described and I’ve never worked outside of the US. Slapping Japanese names on a handful of tools and calling it the best of TPS doesn’t work in any language and being a respectful (or disrespectful) human being is significant wherever you are. I guess it all goes back to poor management is poor management.
    I would have loved to see how his perspective would have changed if he had held a professional job here before he went to Japan.

  2. Darius Mehri

    May 15, 2006 - 6:33 pm

    My perspective certainly would have been different had I held a job in the U.S. before going to Japan but not by that much.
    One of the issues I would like people to understand is that lean work was developed in a country far different than the U.S. and I think this contributes to some of its problems.
    A case in point – the issue of private space. Japanese are raised in an enviornment where privacy is not nearly as important as in the States. This has as much to do with culture as it has to do with the emphasis on the individual in the U.S. compared to Japan. Lean work requires monitoring and workers who area raised in a Western society may find monitoring too intrusive. Jon Miller very effectively discusses this issue in his blog article titled “Lean work does not respect people”.
    Another point is that Japan has never had an organization like OSHA to enforce safety rules. I think this may have contributed to the development of the lean work system in not being as safe as it could be.
    My book certainly has its faults but I don’t think the issue of “perspective” can be used to dismiss its central points.

  3. Bill Waddell

    May 15, 2006 - 9:57 pm

    Mr. Mehri,
    The central point of any book, or any opinion, is always a matter of perspective. Your lack of manufacturing knowledge and experience had an enormous amount to do with the opinions you formed.
    Looking at Toyota with ‘fresh eyes’ caused you to see them differently than many observers with long experience in manufacturing. Whether your perspective enabled you to see them more clearly than others is, of course, up to each reader to decide.
    In any event, we are all either blessed or cursed by our perspective of any situation

  4. Darius Mehri

    May 16, 2006 - 7:37 am

    Bill, I have never claimed to have manufacturing experience and when it comes to lean manufacturing (manufacturing on the line), I admit, I still have some things to learn. I am also very open to criticism and in correcting my opinions about lean work so I appreciate your comments.
    With that said, I think there is a big difference between lean work practiced in Japan as opposed to what is practiced here in the States. I think this has a lot to do with the lack of strong labor unions and labor mobility in Japan.
    There are a number of things I observed that raised serious issues related to the efficiency of lean work in Japan. For example, I worked on a project that required engineers to work up to 100 hours a month of overtime for several months and workers on the line were required to work two simultaneous shifts. Correct me if I am wrong, but could this happen in the American auto industry or any respectable manufacturing industry in the States?
    The product we worked on was released on time and it was certainly well received (not many defects, etc.) but the cost on the workers was tremendous. But the lean work gurus in the States (and I am not saying you are one of them because I am not familiar with your work) would say “wow” isn’t that incredible, see how efficient lean work is? The problem is they don’t see the human cost of lean work in Japan because a) I don’t think they have ever worked at a company before b) they just don’t care. In Liker’s The Toyota Way he talks about the design of the Prius and the ability of the company to reduce the design time but he never discusses if more workers were shifted to that department to help with the extra work or if the engineers were simply overloaded with more work. Why doesn’t he talk about this? Am I overlooking something?
    Lean work as practiced in the States must be different than in Japan and I think you can comment on this. The reason I am saying this is that unions are relatively strong in the States and wouldn’t permit this type of practice, OSHA keeps a check on management engaging in unsafe work practices and most workers if faced with this would say “I’m outa here”. There is very little labor mobility in Japan and so workers just don’t have the luxury of finding another job. From what I understand, American companies are incentivised to improve the work conditions because engineers or workers will get up an leave to work for another company, i.e. move from GM to Ford, etc.
    Now, I was at a lecture at MIT a few weeks ago about lean work being implemented in El Salvador, of all places. This was an eye opening experience for me since I really saw the value of lean work. A garment company was told by the parent company in America to either go lean or they would be eliminated from the supply chain. The company was experiencing tremendous competition from the Chinese and had to make changes. They went lean, the company became profitable, expanded their market and the jobs were saved. I thought that this was great, lean allowed them to save their jobs but the factory also experienced tremendous human resources problem – there was a 100% turnover of workers. Why? They viewed monitoring as spying and they preferred sweatshop conditions that existed before lean because they were allowed more time to rest.
    So, to conclude, there are advantages and disadvantages to lean. At this point I would like to do more research in this field to try to filter out the aspects of lean that have been shaped by the work process in Japan as opposed to the States and to explore ways to make it better. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.

  5. Bill Waddell

    May 16, 2006 - 8:50 am

    Darius,
    You have raised quite a few issues, but I think the important point is this:
    At its heart, lean is a fundamentally different economic model of manufacturing. In the course of pursuing that business model, Toyota developed a lot of new tools and techniques. They also deployed people policies that were consistent with that lean business model, and consistent with the social culture in which they operate.
    Lean is, by and large, still only understood in the U.S. and around the world at a very superficial level. Very few companies have really undestood and fully adopted the core lean business model. But one thing that we have learned from those companies is that how they use the Toyota lean tools – kanbans, U shaped cells, standardized work, etc… – and how they deploy people policies is in the manner that best suits their unique situation.
    Lean is not about the tools, or even a particular set of human resources practices and policies. It is about that core economic model.
    I think what you observed in Japan vis a vis people practices was what Toyota management thought was acceptable and appropriate in Japan. From my own observations and those of others, similar practices are not pursued by Toyota in their U.S. plants. On the other hand, I suspect that the people policies pursued by Toyota in India are even more oppressive than those you observed in Japan – hence four strikes in the last few years and some of them violent.
    The point is that lean is not a set of rules concering human resources, and a plant or a company taking some perceived aspect of the Toyota Production System and implementing it does not make that company lean. The company you learned of in El Salvador could not possibly have actually converted to the Toyota economic model and had that drive 100% employee turnover. That is like having aomeone tell you that they turned on the kitchen light and the pipes burst – it cannot be true because there is no valid cause and effect link. If the plant in El Salvador did something under the guise of lean, and then experienced 100% employee turnover, what they did was applied some superficial tool or facet of the Toyota Production System to their same old buusiness model with disasterous results.
    This is the same as American companies who take a good long look at JIT and come to the conclusion that all it takes to practice JIT is to make their suppliers carry all of the inventory. They have missed the point completely and accomplished nothing other than to wreak havoc on the supply chain.
    Finally, the power of lean manufacturing is that it is an economic model that does a great job of rooting out and bringing to the surface all of the “non-value adding” cost, mostly in overhead and indirect labor, and the costs of quality and carrying inventory. Traditional companies are still direct labor focused – putting almost all of their focus on direct labor costs. As productivity improvements occur and automation proliferates, direct labor has become an almost insignificant element of manufacturing cost. In most factories, direct labor is 5% or less of the total cost. Companies tunnel visioned on direct labor experience increasingly diminishing returns on their direct labor cost reduction efforts. That is why the big old American manufacturing companies, all slaves to the old Alfred Sloan management syetm with its direct laborfocus lead the charge to offshore outsourcing in search of cheap labor, while Toyota and other truly lean companies find they can manufacture quite profitably in the U.S. Truly lean companies experience huge cost advantages because they have found big pools of cost reduction opportunities invisible to traditional companies.
    The El Salvador plant that “implemented lean’, and experienced 100% turnover quite obviously was using lean tools and techniques to pursue the same old strategy of hammering direct labor. It cannot work, because they are obviously not going after where the real economic opportunity lies. They are not unique. Companies that widely broadcast their lean strategy and deploy Toyota tools and practices in the factory, and those sending armies of six sigma black belts into the plants fail to generate real improvements, by most accounts, over 95% of the time.
    Saying you are lean – and even having a lot of lean looking things in the plant – and actually beng lean are two very different animals.
    Bill Waddell

  6. Darius Mehri

    May 16, 2006 - 9:22 am

    Bill, please point me in the direction of publications that discuss the economic model of manufacturing that you discuss. I will be very interested in reading up on this issue.
    I don’t remember reading about the “economic model” in Liker’s Toyota Way or in the Machine that Changed the World? From what I remember they discuss the main points of lean from an organizational perspective, implement these x,y,z techiques and your company will be lean and profitable, and your workers will be happy.

  7. Bill Waddell

    May 16, 2006 - 9:29 am

    Darius,
    Let’s take this offline so as not to clog Jon’s blog up more than we have. In a losing effort to defeat the email address harvesters and spammers, I don’t want to put my email in the body of this comment.
    Please click on my name – it will take you to my web site. Go to the contact page, and you will find my email address. Please send me an email, and I will send you all kinds of stuff – and not all of it contrary to your observations!

  8. jean

    June 5, 2006 - 9:35 am

    I work in a hospital that is the Fourth Reich in implementing the toyota lean method. Everything you have described and compared is truthful and beginning to be the outcome at our hospital. The staff arer being reduced to the “vast unlimited supply of minimally skilled disposeable labor” so necessary to the lean process. Our staff as now entered the phase of neutral attitudes that will precede open rebellion. Our patients have no idea that they are thought of as rubber, glass and steel. If this is the course of medicine and health care , we are all in trouble except for the very wealthy who can afford to outsource their health care needs to private institutions. If it were not for our nurses union, I am confident they would start to elminate us starting with the most senior nurses on down. The lean thing does not like women nor workers older than forty or high tech employees. We are too difficult to manage. I have been trying to sound the alarm in my work place, but everyone is afraid they will lose their jobs. The undercurrent of frustration and depression is a daily topic done on the hush. We do not have freedom of speech or thought in a lean institution. It is one of the saddest management attitudes to ever happen at out hospital.

  9. B.Miller

    September 7, 2006 - 10:17 am

    Toyota is the worst company I have ever worked for. Not only is lean management, expected long hours, and prejudice against blacks and women significant issues, but harassment in the workplace is not dealt professionally. The ‘good ole boy’ network is thriving well. One human resources employee in WV took the employee pass of another hr employee and put it on the head of all the nude women of a Playboy magazine and presented this to her at a going away party that had high level management and hourly team members and their spouses present. When someone complained, nothing was done and a month later the guilty man was promoted to hr assistant manager. The person who registered the complaint against him was later asked to leave for not ‘fitting in’.