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.