“Best in the World” and No Hope to be Seen
A six-part series titled “At the Feet of Toyota (トヨタの足元)” ran in the Japense newspaper Chinichi between May and June of this year. The first article on May 11, 2008 featured a mom and pop Toyota supplier in the outskirts of Nagoya. Employing fewer than 100 people the owner of this company was forced to violate the “no layoffs” rule of lean in order to meet Toyota’s cost reduction goals.
According to the article, things changed in the summer of the year 2000 with the global competitiveness initiative CCC21 (Construction of Cost Competitiveness 21) that required a sever 30% cost reduction “request” all the way down to the smallest suppliers.
“If we didn’t comply with the request they might take away the business. In fact it was forced. We had no choice but to achieve it,” the president of this supplier is quoted as saying. He was forced to release 20% of his workforce that year. Lower cost foreign workers were used in their place.
With no profit left, and no money for investment, the president of this mom and pop manufacturer sees no future. “I see no hope.” Even no matter how tough things got, he never failed to pay his life insurance premiums. “In the worst case, I want my life insurance money to be used to liquidate my company.”
The CCC21 cost reduction effort was credited with cost savings of greater than 1,000,000,000,000 yen between 2000 and 2003. Some have observed that these aggressive cost cuts across the entire supply chain contributed to Toyota’s quality problems and record vehicle recalls starting in 2004.
Is there a double standard at Toyota? While the urgency to cut costs has clearly seeped down to the smallest suppliers, the highly touted respect for humanity and securing employment through growth and development has not. The article asks, “Is Toyota unable to see the mom and pop suppliers at their feet?”
Don’t Let it Get to Your Head
Toyota CEO Katsuaki Watanabe said in a speech to new employees, “Pride does not come long before a fall,” as a warning not to become arrogant and complacent even as Toyota rose to become the number one automobile manufacturer in the world. In the second article in the series on May 12, 2008 begins with the question, “Is this an example of the pride Toyota fears so much?”
Mr. Gohara is 66 years old and the president of company that supplies Toyota with cardboard boxes. He is a retired Toyota manager who was asked to become the leader of this supplier. One day when he was visiting his customer Toyota, he was shocked by the attitude of a young buyer who presented him with the cost reduction request. Gohara told him, “I’m telling you as a Toyota veteran, come back when you’ve fixed your attitude.”
Gohara was taught by his superiors to remember that the suppliers bow before you not because of your stature, but because of the Toyota name. “These are your seniors who have spent years with sweat on their brow. We exist today thanks to their efforts,” he was taught years ago. In other words, don’t let it get to your head. Yet the young Toyota managers of today summon the senior executives from suppliers and sit back with crossed legs, looking down their noses at them.
Gohara is concerned, “Perhaps Toyota has become too big, and can no longer spare the attention to look after the small companies.”
For Whom Are these Cost Reductions?
“I won’t sign this.” The twice annual cost reduction requests from Toyota have a signature line, and acceptance is largely a formality. The refusal by the president of this Toyota supplier, a man in his 50s, must have come as a shock to the Toyota buyer. When he took this stand, he was aware that he risked losing the Toyota business. According to the article, “pride in manufacturing” gave him the courage to stand up to his customer.
The third article in the Chunichi newspaper series tells the story of this man who was a professional baseball player for a company team who learned the manufacturing craft by chance from a man whom he met at a roadside eatery in his 20s. After three years of apprenticeship he built a company from a 40 square meter space to a company today with more than 70 employees.
“It’s passion and human kindness that make good products,” the article quotes him.
Each part was designed and manufactured by a person and has its own “story”. The article says that cost reductions that are required time after time, as if they are a given, lack any “story” or “philosophy”.
He does not question the fact that, “We have grown thanks to Toyota” and yet he questions why, and for whom are these cost reductions?
Mom and Pop Factories Have Their Reasons
The May 14, 2008 article is a cautionary tale of kaizen and cost reduction efforts taken too far.
A Toyota buyer arrives with stop watch in hand to verify that a supplier can meet their cost reduction targets.
“Why did you lie?” He demanded.
While the supplier had submitted 40 seconds as the process time on the “Toyota watch” was 30 seconds.
“But…” the president of the supplier could only grit his teeth. The time he had submitted was based on building in some slack so processes could help each other out when they were behind and still guarantee top quality. He had his reasons.
Despite the benefits of being a Toyota supplier, including the stable business and the ease of getting bank loans, the article quotes another leader of a supplier in Nagoya saying, “All that connects us with Toyota is money. Any sense that I am ‘serving Toyota’ is gone.”
The article points out that kaizen and cost reduction have become mechanistic, and only a measurement of “efficiency” where in fact the original founders’ intent for kaizen was to build a love for manufacturing and develop human creativity.
Efficiency First, Even for Talent Development
Several more articles follow in a similar vein. The Chunichi newspaper even published a series of reader comments and reactions to these articles as follow-on stories. The reader comment from June 10, 2008 was revealing:
I am a mid-level engineer working for Toyota. The top management speaks loudly about the importance of manufacturing, but in the factories they have started a new talent development policy to train new employees to become fully capable engineers in three years.
Three years is barely enough to get accustomed to the company and get to know the work flow. People are up in arms about this absurd policy.
It takes a long time to learn how to make things, and the focus on efficiency is only reducing our technical capability more and more. Placing greater value on engineering abilities and skills, as well as slowing down the speed of our work is our obligation for the future.
These articles are certainly written from the point of view that Toyota is losing it. Yet Toyota has changed steadily and often drastically for the better over the past half century. Nobody said that being the best was easy. Perhaps these same concerns have always existed at Toyota.
Only today we have the internet, blogs, and the ability to read 2-month old international newspapers from the comfort of home. Perhaps these voices are nothing new and we are only seeing and hearing the struggles that come with constant improvement. Or perhaps Toyota is growing too fast, losing sight of it’s foundation (the mom and pops at their feet), becoming arrogant and spinning out of control.