Eiji Toyoda, Promoter of 'Toyota Way,' Dies at 100
September 17, 2013 4:02 PM   Subscribe

Eiji Toyoda, architect of the “lean manufacturing” method helped turned the automaker Toyota, into a global powerhouse and changed the face of modern manufacturing. 'In almost six decades with the company he helped transform a tiny spinoff of a textile loom maker into the world’s biggest automaker. Early on, he helped put Toyota at the forefront of a wave of automobile production in Japan, pushing it to bolster its lineup, first by adding compact vehicles and sports cars in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s he initiated the development of luxury models to compete with the likes of Mercedes-Benz and BMW, culminating with the Lexus brand in 1989.'

'In 1950 he set out on what would turn out to be a pivotal three-month tour to survey Ford’s Rouge plant in Detroit, then the largest and most efficient factory in the world. Before the war, the military government prevented Toyota from building passenger cars, compelling it to make trucks for Japan’s war effort instead.

By 1950, Toyota had produced just 2,685 automobiles, compared with the 7,000 vehicles the Rouge plant was rolling out in a single day, according to “The Machine That Changed the World,” a 1990 study by James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones and Daniel Roos.

Mr. Toyoda was unfazed, writing back to headquarters that he “thought there were some possibilities to improve the production system.” He brought back a thick booklet that outlined some of Ford’s quality-control methods; the company translated it into Japanese, changing “Ford” to “Toyota” in all references.'

'Toyota entered the American market after an executive, Shotaro Kamiya, visited the U.S. in the mid-1950s and noted sales of the Volkswagen Beetle, the most popular import car at the time.

Kamiya went back to Japan and with Toyoda developed the plan to crack the U.S. market, importing the first cars in August 1957.

They pinned their strategy on a sluggish, barren, four-door sedan called the Toyopet Crown, a car Toyoda had developed. But it wasn’t very good by American standards. The first Toyotas sold in the U.S. handled poorly when driven over 60 mph and tended to overheat in the mountains or desert. Toyota's U.S. sales in its first year were meager with just 288 vehicles.

Toyoda quickly realized that his Toyopet was not good enough to attract American buyers.

He told his sales force to focus on the Jeep-like Land Cruiser until Toyota could launch its Corona sedan in 1965. Although still a small car, the Corona addressed the problems that were evident in the Toyopet and became the automaker’s first big seller in the U.S.

By 1972, Toyota passed Volkswagen to become the top import brand in America. The automaker has sold more that 1.5 million Toyota, Lexus and Scion here through the first eight months of this year and controls more than 14% of the market.

By the late 1960s another Toyoda project, the Corolla, had developed a U.S. reputation for reliability, low cost and fuel efficiency. '

'He also oversaw Toyota’s development of Lexus, approving development of the luxury car in 1983 to compete with Mercedes-Benz and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s BMW. The first vehicle, the LS 400, went on sale in the U.S. in 1989.'
posted by VikingSword (43 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
♥ Our Toyota has been reliable and trouble free since 2005. Thanks Eiji Toyoda.
posted by Cranberry at 4:07 PM on September 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

The headline for the obit at the Los Angeles Times is: Eiji Toyoda, car family scion who developed Corolla and Lexus, dies

Scion, of course, is one of the Toyota brands.

Who ever wrote that should get a raise.
posted by sideshow at 4:17 PM on September 17, 2013 [14 favorites]

My very first job out of college was writing kanban manuals for a huge company, so I got very familiar with his ideas. It was a real learning experience that has helped me in unexpected ways.

posted by vibrotronica at 4:20 PM on September 17, 2013

The first Toyota I owned was a Tercel 4WD wagon. An unstoppable beast of a car if ever there was one, despite my best efforts it was impossible to get stuck. That car went for 300,000 miles. The second was a 94 Camry that I got 270k out of without much more than regular maintenance.

I own a Tacoma now, and the wife has a 4Runner. Such amazingly comfortable and capable vehicles they can do some amazingly technical terrain basically stock.

I recently drove a 2013 Escape, and the fit and finish were of no comparison. My WWII vet grandfather may be rolling in his grave, but I love my Toyotas.

One of these days, I'll get a vintage Land Cruiser.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 4:22 PM on September 17, 2013

posted by Gelatin at 4:23 PM on September 17, 2013

posted by Anima Mundi at 4:33 PM on September 17, 2013

The "NUMMI" episode of This American Life provides an interesting view of just how different Toyota's manufacturing was compared with American automakers of that time. For instance, American automakers were so obsessed with production volume that they'd continue to make cars even if they had the wrong parts on hand. They didn't trust their employees to detect errors, and they didn't afford workers any power to halt production if something was wrong because managers thought they'd just abuse that power to avoid work.
John Shook: What Henry Ford had basically designed was a system that-- he wanted the people on the floor to simply get the volume out, get the product out the door, and someone later will worry about the quality. If we have to repair it, we'll repair it.

So one of the most fundamental things that Toyota did was take that and turn it on its head. So that now we tell the plant floor, don't you worry about the production volume, you worry about quality. The last thing we want is to have a lot of defects flowing down the line that we have to repair later.
No wonder Toyota was so successful.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:36 PM on September 17, 2013 [13 favorites]

I went to the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology in Nagoya. It's basically a museum that exists to talk up Toyota's accomplishments (unsurprisingly), but there's a lot of interesting stuff about the development of the company (including why they went from Toyoda to Toyota, which I've forgotten) and about the history of the textile and automobile industries and innovation there (particularly innovation at the hands of Toyota, of course). Anyway, it was a good way to spend the morning before catching a train.
posted by hoyland at 4:38 PM on September 17, 2013

posted by Smart Dalek at 4:46 PM on September 17, 2013


I gripe about my 1991 Camry daily, but it's never failed to start up.
posted by scose at 4:53 PM on September 17, 2013

It seems like everyone in my family has driven at least one Toyota. Everyone knows that if you want a car that will last, get a Toyota. Thank you Eiji.
posted by Slinga at 4:56 PM on September 17, 2013


I still remember getting fooled by some auto magazine in probably the 1980's that claimed "Camry" meant "no sex appeal" in Japanese.

Anyway, job well done sir.
posted by dabug at 5:04 PM on September 17, 2013

posted by oceanjesse at 5:05 PM on September 17, 2013

It's hard to exaggerate just how influential Toyoda's ideas on business have been. Absolutely crazy that a few elegant concepts grounded in Japanese philosophy are as relevant today as when they were first introduced decades ago, especially if you consider that most business management theories these days have a shelf life of a couple of months. Even crazier when you realize that these concepts of running a business can be applied to any industry imaginable, even very creative ones far removed from manufacturing.

I read a story in the insightful This Is Lean that it takes decades to truly understand The Toyota Way, which says a lot about the intellectual qualities of Toyoda. But this obit reminds me that Toyoda's greatest insight was that in order to truly succeed as a business, you need to keep learning and improving no matter how small and slow your progress might seem. Learning from your competitors and keeping at it for decades takes a special kind of patience and humility which is really inspiring and equally rare in the business world. Also, Toyoda and his colleagues at Toyota worked for the long haul in a way that's hard to imagine other companies doing; which of them spends decades perfecting a business philosophy, one that's profoundly humane and spiritual in nature?

posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:10 PM on September 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

posted by koucha at 5:13 PM on September 17, 2013

posted by Flashman at 5:26 PM on September 17, 2013

posted by Foosnark at 5:35 PM on September 17, 2013

posted by Stonestock Relentless at 5:46 PM on September 17, 2013

posted by Fig at 5:47 PM on September 17, 2013

Still miss my '76 Celica even though it rusted faster than I could patch it.
posted by octothorpe at 5:59 PM on September 17, 2013

kaizen basically is what gave me a career, even though I don't know anything about it and don't do it.

posted by rebent at 6:18 PM on September 17, 2013

I went to the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology in Nagoya.

Hah, I've been there as well. There's a decent collection of different loom technologies, as well as some cute-as-a-button vintage Toyota cars and little pickups.
posted by carter at 6:40 PM on September 17, 2013

Car critics say: "Boring" & "Reliable" about the Corolla, which is the perfect spy car, if you were George Smiley.
posted by ovvl at 6:44 PM on September 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I miss my celica.... Why are toyotas so boring now.


. But 100 is pretty awesome
posted by mrgroweler at 6:49 PM on September 17, 2013

What's equally fascinating to me is how his ideas have influenced businesses far beyond auto manufacturing.

For instance, his Lean manufacturing process has been adapted for modern-day software development. "Just-in-time" manufacturing is one reason Apple can announce a new version of an iPhone one day and then have them ready for sale around the world two weeks later. The fact that a modern washing machine, oven, or some other household appliance has a much higher level of reliability owes a small debt of gratitude to Lean's emphasis on quality control. And so on and so forth.

For me, Toyoda's lasting gift was Kanban, the scheduling system used to implement Lean. Co-developed by Toyoda and his colleague Taiichi Ohno, Kanban (and similar systems like Scrum) has revolutionized project management. Have you visited a corporate conference room lately and seen a whiteboard with several columns and various tasks written on post-its sorted by various levels of completion? That's Kanban. I've become quite fascinated with it, and am studying how to evolve my GTD/Total Workday Control productivity system to incorporate "personal Kanban."

Rest in peace, Toyodasan. And thank you.

posted by zooropa at 7:25 PM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I hate that the man's ideas have been stolen and turned into Buzzword Compliant™ BusinessSpeak® for the Leadership Professional©. These days, incompetent MBAs misappropriate the ideas and assume "Lean" means "do better, but with fewer people," and that "kanban" means "why would we do any planning? we wrote down ideas on cards and handed them to each other!" and that "continuous improvement" implies that the people producing value should work faster and faster, regardless of quality.

It's like they got destroyed by someone who used their inadequacies to defeat them, then stole all of his terms and applied them to the same weaknesses that he used against them.

Rest in peace, Mr. Toyoda. Feel free to make the afterlife more efficient.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:31 PM on September 17, 2013 [20 favorites]


My Dad worked in a very senior position at TMMC for over 16 years before his retirement, so I became familiar with The Toyota Way, the Toyota Production System (yes, TPS reports), kaizen, and kanban through discussions with him and from glancing through the written materials he brought home. The 80s were a very rough period for North American automotive manufacturing and parts companies, rife with layoffs, mergers, buyouts, and hostile takeovers, and the company he worked for beforehand must have changed ownership eight times in six years. Despite surviving every company change, he jumped at the chance to leave and join Toyota and by the end I started to appreciate how he felt about working for one of the best run manufacturing companies there is.

I don't have an overarching theme (aside from it being a good company) but here are a couple of anecdotes:

The way Toyota factories ran, I was told, was markedly different than the North American manufacturers. Apparently the Big 3 operated their factories at top speed, running three shifts a day, 24 hours, 5.5 days a week, until eventually there would be an equipment failure: for example a stamping press breaking down, or some kind of hydraulic seizure. Then, everyone upstream of the breakdown would operate at a nominal speed, with their output parts diverted to holding/storage, while the line workers downstream of the issue got to wait around for the [hurried] fix. Afterwards, the upstream portion would continue working at nominal pace for as many hours or days as it took for the tail end to work through the backlog and finally catch up.

In contrast, Toyota only scheduled two shifts per day, 12 hours apart, with a few hours of scheduled equipment maintenance between every shift. Machines got oiled and serviced regularly, the saw blades and welding tips got replaced when they started to wear, not when they broke, and sometimes the maintenance crew would change out huge pieces of machinery during the shift change, so the mechanics could spend a day fixing the problem correctly while a backup machine continued with production. As a result they regularly achieved 98% production uptime or better (I think the record low during my Dad's tenure was 97.4%), which equalled a higher net total production volume than the Big 3 achieved with flat out rushing.

Another big difference: in North America, Toyota's cars are all sold before they are built. Granted, some of these sales are to car dealers who want to sell new cars off their lot, but it makes no difference as far as the Motor Corporation is concerned; every car produced is already paid for. You'd order a new car, and be told when it would be ready for you. Because of the insane optimization of the JIT supply pipeline, delivery times could be as low as 72 hours; order your new car on Monday and pick it up -- with your exact choice of colour and options -- on Thursday. And this was in a time before Amazon Prime; before the Internet even.

Contrast again to the Big 3, who would hire on new assembly line contractors every year and ramp up in the spring to produce X million units of the new model, based on forecasts and projections. This would work fine for a few years until inevitably a major discrepancy between production and sales would leave tens of thousands of cars sitting in fields waiting to be sold, slashed prices, plant slowdowns, and layoffs of the same least-senior people who were brought on in the most recent spring hiring binge. The labor crisis Toyota went through in the 1950s was cited as one of the main motivators for why they took this approach; they'd rather be asking their workers for overtime and Saturday shifts than have to do layoffs again.

It took a few months for my Dad to become accustomed with the standards of production quality at the plant; he'd tell me about seeing cars parked in the defect lot, awaiting "repair" so they could be sold, and not being able to tell what was wrong with them. Eventually he developed a critical eye that could quickly spot things like a scratch on the bumper, or a dime-sized nick in a body panel, which would not even be noticed by QC at another company. He tried to convey to me that Toyota was similarly extreme in how it exercised kaizen and things like root cause analysis. If an oil puddle is found on the factory floor, most companies would quickly get someone to clean it up before it causes an accident. At Toyota, they would quickly get someone to place warning cones and tape around the puddle, and then they would figure out where the puddle came from. Was a leaky forklift parked here? Does one of the pipes overhead have a leak? Is a nearby robot flinging a few drops of oil from it's joints every minute? The oil puddle is a sign of a problem somewhere else, possibly a more important one, and you don't clean it up until you've figured out where it came from and fixed the cause.

When my grandmother passed away, my Dad held a senior enough position that he didn't have any managers in North America. After her funeral, we were holding a small repast at the church when in walked a short Japanese man that noone recognized other than my Dad. He didn't stay long; just signed the registry, spoke to Dad briefly, and was gone in probably less than ten minutes. Completely independently he had found his way from Japan to the tiny, rural hamlet (population roughly 2200, over an hour from any major freeway) and gotten directions to the church just so he could offer his condolences. Dad was really touched by that.

...the company translated it into Japanese, changing “Ford” to “Toyota” in all references.'

As they used to say informally around the plant: the Japanese didn't invent the assembly line, but they perfected it.
posted by ceribus peribus at 7:37 PM on September 17, 2013 [306 favorites]

Definitely not an "incompetent MBA" here. Hell, I never finished college. :)

You're right, Sonic, to rant against the overefficientization some businesses have taken to the extreme. For one thing, they have resulted in the "do more with less" philosophy that is often translated into "do far more with far less or we will right-size your job in the next round of layoffs."

But I would argue that systems like Kanban have resulted in far more positive outcomes than negative. It's our responsibility to make sure that the human element -- the heart and soul, if you will -- doesn't get lost. If nothing else, Kanban is a tool that helps people and teams do better. And that's not a bad thing.

"Chance favors the prepared mind." - Louis Pasteur
posted by zooropa at 7:40 PM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

zooropa, I'm not throwing off on the ideas; I think the ideas are excellent, and can be very valuable if they are applied well. Toyota (and other Japanese manufacturers) are living proofs. The problem I have is that in many cases the shell has been appropriated by American managers and they don't make the changes that the Toyota methods require. As a software engineer, I can assure you that very few managers really understand the concepts embodied in practices like Kanban. For example, as an engineer, I should be able to "stop the assembly line" when I spot a problem—but it's culturally impossible, and that leads to the same negative outcomes and laughable quality as usual.

Interestingly, there is one huge software company that seems to take it seriously, and do it correctly: Amazon. Bezos tells a story about how he sat with a customer service rep one day on her job. He took a service call, and pulled up the customer's order history. The service rep told him, "Oh, she's going to ask to return that table," pointing to a particular item. Sure enough, she did, and Bezos finished the call. When he hung up, he asked her: "How did you know?" "It's not packaged well, so the table always arrives scratched. We get tons of calls about it." Bezos then asked the engineers to create a button that would allow a customer service rep to deactivate any product on the site, if it was causing problems.

Eiji Toyoda all the way.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:49 PM on September 17, 2013 [14 favorites]

My bad, sonic. Thanks for the clarification.
posted by zooropa at 8:35 PM on September 17, 2013

I seemed to recall reading that the mission statement/vision of Toyota was simply, "T1" meaning at least one Toyota car in every household. Talk about elegant simplicity. Masterful.
posted by vac2003 at 8:53 PM on September 17, 2013

Without taking anything away from Toyoda-san, it's important to remember that W. Edward Deming achieved near god-like status in Japan for bringing his views on manufacturing and management in soon after the war. So much so that there's statues of him on both the Sony and Honda campuses.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 10:00 PM on September 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Everyone reading this has had their life impacted by his philosophy. Everyone.

posted by Harald74 at 11:51 PM on September 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Without taking anything away from Toyoda-san, it's important to remember that W. Edward Deming achieved near god-like status in Japan for bringing his views on manufacturing and management in soon after the war. So much so that there's statues of him on both the Sony and Honda campuses.

I'm in my final year of uni, and I took a subject about Deming's philosophy this semester because I thought it looked like an easy elective. It's a tiny class (maybe ten people in my lectures, all of whom probably chose the subject for the same reason I did) which makes me sad, because it's the first uni subject I've taken that's really rearranged how my brain thinks about how the world (at least, the business/manufacturing world) works - and really, I feel like that should be the whole point of university education. I would like to see it as a core subject.

Toyota was one of the case studies we looked at when we were discussing quality manufacturing - my boyfriend and I are both third-generation Camry owners. Bless those indestructable station wagons.

posted by jaynewould at 2:11 AM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Why are toyotas so boring now.

My MR2 is the least boring car I've ever owned -- but it is seven years old.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:58 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

As part of my job, I gave a presentation to several mayors and officials from Japan, including the treasurer of the city of Toyota. He gave me a DVD history of the company. Lots of stuff from the early years, about starting up the automobile division, right up to about 1940. Then there was a glaringly obvious gap until 1950 or so.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:48 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Interesting history of which I knew little. I've chosen Toyota a few times, and regret the times I chose otherwise.
posted by Goofyy at 10:00 AM on September 18, 2013

At a soup kitchen in Harlem, Toyota’s engineers cut down the wait time for dinner to 18 minutes from as long as 90.

It's kinda sad that at some workplaces, just the concept of something as basic as kaizen is alien.
posted by ignignokt at 10:53 AM on September 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

[I would have learned how to capitalize 'Dad' correctly if I knew it was going to be sidebarred! My thanks to Mr. Toyoda, whose work on TPS, Corolla and Lexus made a huge, rewarding portion of my father's career possible.]
posted by ceribus peribus at 4:10 PM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

ignignokt: "It's kinda sad that at some workplaces, just the concept of something as basic as kaizen is alien"

You may be interested in this mefi thread wherein we learn that corporate donations institutionalize poverty.
posted by pwnguin at 6:37 AM on September 20, 2013

My experiences with Toyota System Manufacturing in the American and European garment industry (and related industrial sectors like shoes, luggage and fashion accessories) in the early 1980s was almost entirely negative, and cost me and the companies I worked for serious dollars in lost opportunities, and reputation. It all started with an approach to the American company I worked for, by one of the Japanese "5 sister" trading firms we worked with, that Toyota was interested in finding American partners to introduce some of their manufacturing technologies and products for the American soft goods markets. We were introduced to senior Toyota executives at the next Japanese soft goods products industrial fair in Nagoya the following spring, and continued to work with them for the next year or so, with many exchange visits by their engineers and our engineers and sales people to both their Japanese plants, and our American garment and soft goods factories.

Tellingly, we never, through our Toyota contacts, got a single visit to a Japanese garment factory where their products or methods were in use. That should have been a big red flag to us, but we knew from previous contacts with other machinery companies that access to Japanese apparel manufacturing plants was pretty hard to arrange, and that, for the most part, Japanese apparel makers of that era concentrated on luxury goods for their domestic market, often using antiquated methods of production to appeal to Japanese customers as premium traditionally produced domestic goods. For example, one of the major Japanese men's shirt factories of that era that I visited produced 100 dozen men's dress shirts per day, with an average of 127 operations per shirt, with a work force that, in the U.S., using automated machinery and methods requiring only 62 operations, would have been expected to produce about 600 dozen shirts per day. Of course, there was no comparison in terms of quality; the Japanese shirts were sublime, and so far beyond anything available through American channels, that comparisons were laughable. But the Japanese shirts retailed for something north of $200 each, in the major Japanese department stores, whereas, in America of that era, the average J.C. Penney customer wouldn't pay much more than $15 for a men's dress shirt. We later learned that Toyota simply had no domestic customers for its Toyota Manufacturing System for apparel, that weren't either heavily subsidized by Toyota in either direct grants and other experimental funding, or through Toyota contracts for products or sub-assemblies for its own or other products such as automotive interiors, hotel linens, or seat belts and auto airbags.

But because of the prestige of Toyota worldwide, we pressed ahead, and Toyota did put a few million dollars in travel and development costs into the projects they proposed. In particular, after visiting a certain German manufacturer of high priced men's outerwear and suits, they were confident that they could engineer solutions for the high labor cost tailored clothing industry. What they really liked about that German manufacturer's product was that it used high quality Italian fabric in its shell and linings, and was industrially engineered down to something like 130 operations for a men's suit coat, from the more typical 210 to 270 operations needed for a traditionally tailored men's suit coat. That combination of high quality materials and simplified methods really pushed the Toyota engineer's buttons in a way we hadn't seen before, and they insisted that it was the way of the future. We explained that the manufacturer in question had less than 5% of the worldwide market, despite spending about 8% of worldwide advertising revenues, and weren't perceived as particularly high quality, or good value for money, in any market they served. In those days, they were moving more than 50% of their goods in discount channels, rather than in normal retail, and we knew it. But, Toyota people felt that was an unimportant detail, for their vision of future tailored clothing manufacturing.

They went off and spent about 9 months adapting their existing machinery designs and developing whole new machines for particular operations. They came up with a further simplified method of manufacture that produced a men's suit coat in only 78 or so operations, and they made up samples out of the very finest fabrics and linings available. They spent a couple million dollars documenting all this work, and producing a high concept multi-media presentation that explained all their ideas and work. And then they asked us to arrange re-visits to the leading American clothing manufacturers, which we did. Toyota sent so much presentation material and personnel for the trip, that we chartered a 737 to take them around for the roadshow. We went to Chicago, Buffalo, and Rochester, NY to present the Toyota ideas to the biggest American tailored clothing maker. And then to Pennsylvania, Maryland, Missouri, and California, to various other leading makers, to do the same. But all those presentations went pretty much like the first one did, in a Chicago boardroom.

The Toyota people, with us in tow, arrived early for the meeting, and carted in several road show cases of presentation materials and equipment, and sample goods cases, to a big, nicely furnished boardroom. At the appointed hour, a dozen or so top American manufacturing and finance executives joined us, and introductions and business cards were exchanged all around. The Toyota people were keen to start with a multi-media show depicting their company history and ideas about garment manufacture, but the Americans were really only interested in seeing their samples. Within about 5 minutes, the Americans had called up another couple dozen Italian designers and manufacturing quality supervisors from their factory downstairs, and were all gathered around the sample trunks as the Italians arrived, one by one, and the multi-media presentation played, pretty much unheeded by anyone but all the Japanese, on the big screen at the other end of the room.

The Italians pulled coats and pants off the trunk show hangers like bargain shoppers at a Filene's Basement sale. They checked seams, they felt through the shell fabrics for underlying make, they held up coats on their fingers to see drape and "shoulder expression," and in about 10 minutes, they were putting all the samples back on the hangers, or laying them quickly on the table, and leaving the room, shaking their heads, and murmuring to each other in soft Italian and accented English, as they left. When the doors closed again, only about 4 of the senior American executives were still in the room. The most senior cleared his throat, and said "We thank you for coming, and appreciate your interest in helping our business. But our quality people feel that what you've brought, as evidenced by your samples, is not the kind of product we will make, now, or in the future. We hope you enjoy the rest of your visit to Chicago, and since we've heard you like baseball, we've arranged a private tour of Wrigley Field, if you're interested." And then he introduced a junior member of management, who volunteered to take us all to early lunch, and then, if we liked, out to West Addison Street, as all the senior manufacturing and finance executives left the room, without further comment, while the glories of Toyota's approach to manufacturing continued, with accompanying commissioned musical sound track, on the big screen down at the other end of the boardroom.

The Toyota people were all taken aback, to the point of being speechless, but really, they'd have got a better reception if they'd just climbed up on the boardroom table, and shit on it, than ever opened those sample trunks. What they'd brought in those sample trunks was made of beautiful fabric, but it didn't actually drape very well, couldn't be readily altered, presented dry cleaning problems that had previously cost American manufacturers money and customers, and was an affront to any Italian quality man worth his salt. Those samples were just expensively made cheap, engineered bag coats, made inside out, and turned right side out through intentionally left holes in the linings in the left sleeve lining, just before the last pressing operations, like a big German maker did in its Romanian and Bulgarian shops, right before final pressing. They had fused interlinings, like shirts, and crappy machine made buttonholes. They weren't anything you'd want to sew a label in, that your friends might recognize you'd ever been connected with, professionally, particularly if you'd grown up in the workshops of Milan.

And that trip went on like that, meeting after meeting, for the next 3 days, minus, of course, more invitations to tour Wrigley Field.

Finally, we'd got to Alabama, and proposed, in an act of desperation hoping to save anything from the trip, that we visit one of the largest U.S. makers of sportswear and knitwear, whose headquarters was within an hour's driving distance. We made some hasty calls, arranged a Friday afternoon meeting, and left the sample cases and most of the presentation equipment on the jet. We drove in rented cars through the north Alabama country side, and arrived at the big, single story plant/headquarters building on the outskirts of a medium sized Alabama city. We went in, made some introductions all around, and looked through the sample room of that customer. The Japanese murmured amongst themselves as we did that, and looked pretty positive, as they realized that we were now talking about garments that had no interlinings, no tailoring, and maybe 25 operations, tops, with the hardest thing to be done inserting a lot of elastic, or seaming double knit fabric without curling it too much. We got along famously with the sportswear people, and they watched about 40 minutes of the multi-media show, which saved a lot of face for some of our Japanese people on the trip. At the end, they even gave us a purchase order, capped at a quarter million dollars, for a Toyota System production line, to make sweatpants.

The Japanese were delighted. They rushed right home from that meeting, and delivered that production line equipment in 43 days from taking the order, complete with specially engineered fittings, ergonomic stand up tables and electrical/pneumatic fittings, and custom lighting, all on wheels, to facilitate easy re-ordering of the production line by workers, in case of style change or further manufacturing simplification. They sent over a support team of Toyota engineers to set it all up, and teach Toyota manufacturing to factory supervisors, quality people, and workers. In less than 2 weeks, that sample production line was making sweat pants the Toyota way, like a dream.

Then, the American manufacturer thanked the Japanese engineers profusely, paid the invoices for the equipment and training, shut it all down, shipped the equipment to a warehouse, and went on as usual with making a million or so hoodies, sweatshirts, sweatpants, jogging shorts, and t-shirts a day, pretty much as they'd always done. But in the meantime, word of that Japanese equipment and methods experiment had gotten around to all the other factories they owned, several of which had been having union organizing drives, up to then. That nonsense all quieted down, and the Toyota equipment all stayed in the warehouse, thereafter.

Since those days, the American apparel industry has, of course, shrunk to a mere shadow of its size in those times. A big part of that shrinkage was the continuing pressure from low labor wage countries that American manufacturers simply couldn't match, as container shipping became more and more cost effective, and manufacturing moved offshore to ever lower labor cost countries. But Toyota's vision wouldn't have forestalled that, much, I think, despite its success in car manufacturing and a few related industries. Toyota never made much headway with its apparel manufacturing ideas in Bangladesh, or China, or Vietnam, either, and it never even became a leading maker of sewing equipment, against established Japanese, Korean, and Chinese competition. Although you can still buy Toyota branded sewing machines (mostly made under contract in China, without much, if any, direct Toyota supervision or engineering involvment) whatever real commercial success it ever had in the soft goods industries was as a minor maker of looms, knitting equipment, and material handling equipment for warehouses.

But for years after that horrible week in the early 80s, I was still getting ribbed in my travels, by hundreds of Italians around the country, as "the guy who brings us Japanese bag coats." Thanks for nothing, Mr. Toyoda. Have a nice eternity.
posted by paulsc at 5:50 PM on September 20, 2013 [42 favorites]

Holy cow, paulsc, that was an incredible comment! I felt like I was a fly on the wall in those presentation meetings. Super interesting and very informative. It was like reading a really involving procedural, written by an experienced detective, ha!
posted by VikingSword at 11:29 PM on September 20, 2013

I feel like this Top Gear clip is a fitting memorial. They attempt to destroy a Toyota Hilux Pickup truck, which refuses to die. Toyota trucks was the first automobiles to drive to both the Magnetic North Pole and the Geographic South pole. It also had it's own war.

I currently drive a '97 4runner with 200k miles on it, and it really seems like it was built to last forever. Not only in the engine and mechanics, but also in the interior, every knob, switch, lever and control still works like new. I kinda want to buy another one and stash it away for when this one finally gives up the ghost.
posted by billyfleetwood at 8:14 PM on September 23, 2013

« Older Herein lies the peace of God.   |   Richmond's-out-of-his-room-he's-not-in-his-room Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments