Toyota’s Japanese-y Corporate Culture

Yesterday on Marketplace, they were of course doing a story on the big news that Toyota is now actually America’s biggest auto manufacturer, causing GM to fall from its 70-year reign at the top. The beginning of the story struck me as quite interesting:

JEFF TYLER: Being number one in sales usually earns a company some bragging rights. But Toyota is having none of it.

SONA ILIFFE-MOON: It’s really not part of our DNA. Over here at Toyota, we believe in kaizen — it’s the Japanese term for continuous improvement.

That’s Toyota spokesperson Sona Iliffe-Moon, who downplays the company’s achievement.

ILIFFE-MOON: Ranking isn’t really important to our customers. So we aren’t focused on our ranking. But rather, fulfilling our customers’ needs.

This bit of cultural contrast intrigued me, so I looked up kaizen. According to Wikipedia, which does indeed link the concept directly to Toyota:

Kaizen is a daily activity whose purpose goes beyond improvement. It is also a process that, when done correctly, humanizes the workplace, eliminates overly hard work (both mental and physical), and teaches people how to perform experiments using the scientific method and how to learn to spot and eliminate waste in business processes.

Kaizen must operate with three principles in place: process and results (not results-only); systemic thinking (i.e. big picture, not solely the narrow view); and non-judgmental, non-blaming (because blaming is wasteful)…

The “zen” in Kaizen emphasizes the learn-by-doing aspect of improving production. This philosophy differs from the “command-and-control” improvement programs of the mid-twentieth century. Kaizen methodology includes making changes and monitoring results, then adjusting. Large-scale pre-planning and extensive project scheduling are replaced by smaller experiments, which can be rapidly adapted as new improvements are suggested.

Seems like a fairly good idea to me. I wonder what it’s really like to work for Toyota.

Immediately after that part of the story, though, was this bit:

Some suspect the company’s modesty is driven by more than corporate culture.

John Novak is an equity analyst with Morningstar.

JOHN NOVAK: They’re fearful of a political and/or a consumer backlash for them being seen as someone who’s toppling an American icon.

This struck me, because it got me thinking about the enormous generational differences there are in American attitudes toward Japan. Many people of my grandparents’ generation had strongly negative attitudes toward the Japanese, thanks to WWII. My parents’ generation were all working adults during the 80s economic bubble in Japan, when all the suspicion about Japanese companies coming to take over the US markets, and the electronics industry in particular, starting truly taking off. And then there’s my generation, which, at least in my social circle, seems full of Nipponophiles, who enjoy their anime, manga, video games, Pocky, and basically all things Japanese. It’s kind of amazing how quickly cultural attitudes can change.


8 Responses to Toyota’s Japanese-y Corporate Culture

  1. TheGnat says:

    I personally think Toyota’s being honest about their modesty coming from kaizen and not concerns about a backlash. Toyota is a pretty good company for blue-collar workers, because they have thorough training and strongly encourage and support their workers moving up in the company and getting a higher education.

    I’m not so sure about the generational trends. For example, many of the WWII generation hate Japanese, but people who were part of the occupying force and their relations are quite fond of Japan. And the occupation lasted till 1957, so that’s quite a lot of people diverging from the norm. I’ve found my parents’ generation to be a mixed bag as regards Japan, and my own generation even more so. It’s certainly true that there are more people who have a generally favorable attitude toward Japan, but many of them view it as quaint and bizarre (Sushi TV, anyone?). I’m not sure that’s an improvement over the 80s, when at least it was seen as respectable, if threatening.

  2. Mark says:


    There certainly are generational differences in attitudes about Japan, but there are a lot of regional ones, as well. Living in Southeastern Michigan, where even if your personal livelihood doesn’t depend on a domestic automotive manufacturer, the livelihoods of a sizeable fraction of your friends and family do, the outlook is different. Many people around here look at driving a Toyota as a betrayal of your country and everyone around you.

    Sure, there are some very real economic reasons for people to be wary of a foreign car company gaining the top spot. At the same time, though, this outlook has bred a suspicion and at times outright hostility towards foreign manufacturers that runs deep and cold. It isn’t really a rational thing, at that point, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

    I drive a Mazda. It was built in Japan, but in spite of this I bought it through Ford. They have a partnership with Mazda that means I was able to make use of the fact that the company I work for is a supplier to Ford, and take advantage of the Ford supplier pricing program when I bought my car. Even so, having written a check to a domestic company, I still have people actually accost me over my choice of automobiles when I drive in Dearborn sometimes.

    At the heart of it, Toyota has overtaken its domestic competitors because they produce vehicles that people want to buy, and they do it at prices that people are willing to pay. To me, the most natural reaction from GM should be to sit down and think long and hard about what they can do to make their product more appealing to their customers. I think, for the most part, that the people who run the company are doing exactly that. Even so, the people at the bottom, who are losing their jobs in the tens of thousands, don’t see it that way. They blame Toyota, Honda, and others who have grown while they have contracted.

    It has not been my experience that people who work for domestic automotive embrace Kaizen. Those still feel like very top-down, command-and-control sorts of organizations. I suspect that the kind of backlash I get when I step out of my car is a byproduct of that corporate culture.


    I really think it has to be both. There might be a great deal of modesty within Toyota. However, I think they have a reasonable understanding of the very real threat of a huge backlash against them if they are perceived as destroying a major American institution. This doesn’t make them crass to avoid harping on their victory. It just makes good business sense to downplay their newfound status. Friendly or mercenary, as you may wish to perceive them, but the people over in the Toyota marketing department are not fools. They’ve done well to get where they are, and they don’t intend to lose it by looking like spoiled winners.

  3. Dana says:

    Oh, for crying out… Excuse me, I seem to have forgotten my caveat.

    Wherein the author acknowledges that all broad spectrum, generationally based stereotypes refering to a large geographical region are, in fact, stereotypes, and as such, in many specific circumstances, will be found to be wrong.

    I was more interested in the bit where I found out about kaizen anyway.

  4. B Barron says:

    Japan has successfully imported the kaizen process to the US in some instances, and from my limited observation, to good effect. One of the large companies for which I consult has embraced kaizen and uses it everywhere. Several years ago, it was common to observe Japanese individuals in my client’s factories, leading efforts to work over some part of the manufacturing process. Now, the kaizen is more likely to be referred to as a “lean event” and have a home grown leader, but the process and end results – more efficient work stations designed with ideas and involvement from all employment levels – are the same.

    Since it’s early yet and I’m in the box anyway, I might as well comment on the “we used to be No. 1” issue. I have no doubt that design engineers at GM, Ford and the company formerly known as Chrysler can design a vehicle that is just as nifty and fuel efficient as one designed by Toyota. And I am more than confident that such a car can be made in the USA by workers who are among the best and most productive in the world. So the disconnect seems to be that for some reason, the US automakers have not thought that consumers world-wide wanted the kind of cars Toyota and other Japanese companies make. Consumers have proved them wrong on this time and again, so I hope that’s what the Big 3 big wigs are sitting down and considering now. (For the record I drive a “foreign” car that was “born from jets” – and made by a company owned mostly by GM.)

  5. Mary says:

    Disclaimers–*GM wife–*lifelong resident of Michigan–first southeastern, now mid– in a town where GM is one of the three major employers along with the state itself and Michigan state University–also a town where GM continues to locate new plants as it closes down old ones

    I use “Breaking News English” to collect articles and activities to use with a 6th grader and 8th grader that I tutor, and they had a story about this along with the quote expressing “kaizen.” I said to the young lady I was working with, “Wow. that’s nice. That’s really gracious. That’s a good attitude. Even if an American in that same position said that, deep down they’d be thinking “Woo-hoo! We’re number one!”

    And at the same time I was thinking, “That quote is the biggest piece of passive-aggressive bulls**t I have ever encountered, and I’m a mother! I do this on a daily basis! I bow to their superior powers of manipulation.” And I really, really felt both the thing I said to the girl and the thing I was thinking. So go figure.

  6. Dana says:

    I dunno, Mary, I think you’re starting to understand some of the Japanese cultural mindset. There’s a lot of passive-aggression while also completely acknowleging that politeness and humility are beneficial to the whole. And most of the time, it works. (Except for when all the repression leads to craziness and an unwillingness to confront true problems, but hey. It’s not like that doesn’t happen in the US, too.)

  7. I was looking up this topic for my dad, but now you got me reading everything about it! You’re such a great writer, wish there were more people like you around here.

  8. Chinese Mariah says:

    I like this! Some comments are extremely great.Thank you!

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