The Dark Side of Lean

The Secret Lives of Toyota Term Employees, Episode 4

By Jon Miller Updated on May 16th, 2017

Somehow, I Will Get through This Week
I have been reluctant to post Episode 4 in the Secret Lives of Toyota Term Employees because the continuing story of the Tahara plant worker Maruo is so bleak. Last week Kevin Meyer at the Evolving Excellence blog and Mark Graban at the Lean Blog stepped up to address the morbid topic of karoshi, Japanese for “death from overwork” and the recent news of a lawsuit by the widow of a Toyota employee for karoshi of her husband who worked at Toyota.

So perhaps the time is right to share Maruo’s experience with overburden and stress while working on the Toyota assembly line, which he documented on his blog called Welcome to Tahara Prison (田原刑務所へようこそ).

On October 26, 2005 Maruo writes that his knees are bruised from working while kneeling on the hard floor and that already many people have “escaped” from Tahara prison (quit the job) and Maruo’s team is badly short-handed. This was a particularly stressful week at Toyota when a new product is starting up on the production line. The Group Leader who Maruo nicknames as “Savage” is running around being particularly brutal and abusive.

One of his term employee colleagues “B” has persistent pain in his hands from repetitive stress, and is unable to work on the assembly line, and is instead assigned to 4S activity or studying by observing. This manpower shortage further irritates Group Leader Savage further. In turn “B” is worried that Savage hates him, although Maruo says everyone is too busy to worry about B.

He describes a stressful workplace and a Group Leader Savage who communications his frustration openly and emotionally. Maruo writes:

“I think any improvement in productivity gained by yelling at us and terrorizing us is only temporary. However, perhaps there is a different logic that applies to the production floor. Since I have no previous experience on the brutal shop floor, it may just take time for me to understand.”

The physical fatigue is not as bad as the pain of repetitive stress. Maruo writes that his right hand is in pain, and he can’t bend his finger tips to touch his palm. The constant standing and lack of circulation is also causing a tingling sensation in his toes.

“Even working on training vehicles, I cannot finish my work on time so I am always calling the supervisor. But, almost everyone is at that level so you just have to go along with it.”

He writes of a a bad mistake he made on a particular Tuesday. “I have a bad habit that when I start to fall behind, I work harder to catch up rather than calling the supervisor.” Maruo worked too fast trying to catch up and completely skipped one vehicle. Since the work done to each vehicle is sequenced, if you miss one vehicle it puts sequence of vehicles off by one.

After several vehicles, he notices that the parts don’t fit. The line stops. The need to disassemble and rework several vehicles. He is surrounded by his managers, who yell at him “Were you sleeping?” Maruo writes that he felt at this moment that he wanted to run away, to quit working at Toyota. “As a term employee, it is easy to say ‘I quit’ and leave. Nobody will stop you. They will find a replacement the next day and Tahara prison will keep operating.”

He reflects on his life, that if he quits this job like has has in the past, he will go back to the aimless life he led after graduating from university and living at home with his parents. Somehow, I will get through this week, he writes.

The Weight of Five Seconds

On November 14, 2005 Maruo writes a blog entry titled “The Weight of 5 Seconds” and says that it seems the vehicles rolling along the assembly line are mocking him. He can barely keep up, and even the assembly worker at the upstream process wonders if the line isn’t moving too fast, and asks Maruo for help. He wants to help, but he can’t. They all suspect that the line speed is increasing. At the end of the shift they learn that today the assembly line was running at the “full takt time”. Before today, the line was moving more slowly, with 5 seconds added to takt time.

“I was made to realize the weight of five seconds,” writes Maruo.

He reflects on his life, dropping out of high school, studying and finishing college then working jobs off and on, wasting so much time. Time is very tight on the production line. You can’t “drop out” except if your supervisor can fill in for you, and they are responsible for a wide area so you can’t call them over so often to take a rest.

The XX Nonconformity

“Now I’ve done it.”
His new Group Leader tells Maruo that he a nonconformity report identified him as the point of origin for a serious defect, known as “XX”. After working so hard to keep up, living with the savage treatment by his group leader, and the pain and fatigue, he is angry with himself that despite his best effort he has created a defect.
His Group Leader was understanding “That’s a tough spot to get right. Just don’t make the same mistake. Do you best.” Although his GL is smiling, it does not change the fact that Maruo must stay after the end of the shift, without overtime pay, to write down a countermeasure document. Since he has no memory of making the error he struggles with finding the root cause and coming up with a countermeasure. It takes him an hour of discussion and advice from his GL to complete the document.

Maruo is Nearly Shutting Down

On December 11, 2005 he writes, “Please stop the line for 5 seconds, even just 3 seconds.” These are the words in his heard during the last 30 minutes of each day. He writes that it may seem like 3 seconds is no time at all in daily life, by on the production line it is vital. Maruo uses the occasional 3 seconds of down time to catch up when he is behind.

But the new production line Maruo works on almost never stops, with a rate of operation of 99%. He writes that everyone wishes someone would stop the line, but there is a record of which process stopped the line, and for how long. Everyone is desperate not to be the one who stops the line. He writes:

“But in reality, for term employees who are not aiming to become regular employees, there is no need to work so hard to keep the line going or to avoid being recorded for stopping the line. To be honest, we are not paid more if the rate of operation is higher.”

Life is a Piece of Cake

The last entry on Maruo’s blog is December 21, 2005. He writes about a delicious piece of cake he ate with a friend he made at Tahara. It’s an abrupt end to his story. Perhaps he went home to Hokkaido for New Year’s holiday and decided not to come back. If he quit, Maruo lasted 4 months.

In a post in late October 2005, he wrote:

“Even if it’s difficult, I think it is important to see if you can hold your ground. But sometimes you just can’t.”

He made it through the week, but perhaps he decided it wasn’t worth finishing his term if it meant ruining his health. Overwork and overburden are serious problems, and causes death and injury, even at Toyota. Even a great company like Toyota can fail to protect the weakest members at the fringe of their operations when savage conditions replace humanity in the workplace.

Past episodes:
The Secret Lives of Toyota Term Employees, Episode 3
The Secret Lives of Toyota Term Employees, Episode 2
The Secret Lives of Toyota Term Employees, Episode 1

  1. mike

    December 14, 2007 - 9:19 am

    Unbelievable. One would expect better of the paragons of “respect for people.”

  2. Erik

    December 14, 2007 - 2:30 pm

    Agreed. Sounds more like an excerpt from Ivan Denisovich than a Toyota employee blog.

  3. doobie broter

    July 3, 2008 - 5:26 pm

    uhm there are a large number of jobs in the us that are like that or worse. think fedex or ups hubs , the post office, etc etc. it would be nice if things were better but ive never seen the almighty ‘customer’ or ‘shareholder’ give a damn abut what is behind all that shiny crap they lust after at the store

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