The Secret Lives of Toyota Term Employees, Episode 1

Kaizen and respect for people. These are the words under which Toyota presents itself as a company that builds cars by building people. Yet this is the ideal, and we know that there is always a gap between reality and the ideal. What is the reality of Toyota’s labor policies? What can we learn about Lean manufacturing by taking a look into the fringes of the Toyota workforce, into the secret lives of Toyota term employees?
What is a Term Employee?
The “term employee” (期間工) is a contract worker who works directly for Toyota for a set period of time, or “term”. The work assigned to the term employee is often work on an assembly line. The work is one piece flow paced by takt time. This simple, repetitive work does not require great skill or technique. These young people are assembling the Camry, Prius, or Lexus vehicles.
The work is physical, and hard but the pay is relatively good, and a bonus is often paid for those term employees who stay until the end of their term. The work as a term employee can be a stepping stone for full regular employment at Toyota. As most of these workers come from far corners of Japan, the larger companies will provide dormitory facilities for little or no cost, as well as a bus ticket home at the end of the term.
Toyota has consistently managed its swings in customer demand by varying its production volume using flexible labor. In the past decades this most often took the form of seasonal labor (farmers during non-planting or harvest months) or more recently by foreign workers such as Japanese Brazilians. Toyota is not a stranger to outsourcing a part of its labor force through manpower agencies.
The direct hiring of these term employees has been on the rise over the last few years after social and political pressure to address the so-called “disguise contract labor problem” (偽装請負問題). Large automotive and electronics companies in Japan (including Toyota) were found to be hiring through temporary labor agencies to reduce cost and avoid certain health and safety responsibilities (costs), while working them essentially as direct employees.
Many of these Toyota term employees are young Japanese men. They are computer literate. They are reaching out across the internet to tell their tragicomic tales on a handful of blogs and websites.
The secret lives of these Toyota term employees are often mundane, with many details of what they ate in the Toyota cafeteria, being scolded by the group leader for not keeping up with takt time, complaints about the blisters on their hands, or the loneliness of a life lived between the dormitory, the pub and the assembly line.
Yet their stories are revealing as authentic voices of people who work within the Toyota system, but who are not completely convinced by the talk of “kaizen and respect for people”. If the Toyota Production System ever fails to treat people fairly and with respect, or fails to engage their minds in creativity and craft, these term employees at the fringe of the Toyota workforce are the people most likely to experience it. These young Japanese bloggers tell their stories with wit and candor, and we will share their stories with you here.
Stay tuned.

4 Comments

  1. Nanda Kumar

    August 27, 2007 - 12:35 am

    Need for a job in a large organisations let people buy in the “Kaizen and respect for people’ theme ignoring the possible Down-side of “contract or temporary nature” and the associated down side of working hard on manufacturing,yearning for permanance.
    A challenge to any Manufacturing organisation!

  2. mike

    August 28, 2007 - 10:15 am

    We all use temporary or contract labor these days as a buffer for the unreliability of the market. How we include our “temps” often says a lot about how we include our regular employees. Are they involved in quality circles, performing TPM and 5S? Are they invited to the company picnic? Don’t get the idea that the temporary workforce issues are limited to Japan or Toyota. We all face the same challenges.

  3. Jon

    August 29, 2007 - 8:28 am

    Very good point Mike.

  4. Bryan

    November 9, 2007 - 4:30 am

    The reality is that in this globally cost competitive environment, temporary labor is vital for success. Why companies treat temporary labor as if they are not important certainly illustrates the gap between reality and Toyota’s self-imposed ideal; “respect for people”.