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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 29, 2010

'Toyota Man' image taking a hit


By John M. Glionna
Los Angeles Times

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

"The real 'Toyota Way' is a culture of control," says Masaki Saruta, a business professor at Japan's Chukyo University who has written several books on Toyota. "The company is very proud of this concept. They've been doing it for 50 years."

JOHN M. GLIONNA | Los Angeles Times

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TOYOTA CITY, Japan He works punishing hours, clocks in unpaid overtime without complaint and allows his bosses to call the shots both at the office and at home.

He's the archetype of the perfect employee. He's a Toyota Man.

Largely upon his shoulders, Toyota Motor Corp. last year surpassed General Motors Co. as the planet's best-selling automaker. He's the key ingredient behind Toyota's record of high quality now tainted by its sudden acceleration problem and productivity.

The Toyota Man's handbook is the decades-old "Toyota Way," a company manifesto that emphasizes continuous improvement and teamwork in the car-making process a corporate game plan imitated and studied across Japan and the industrialized world.

But as the company faces a worldwide recall of several top models over alleged safety defects, some scholars and others are putting a decidedly more negative spin on the company's pristine Toyota Man image.

"The Toyota Man always says yes," said Hiroshi Oba, a veteran assembly-line worker who rebelled against the image to become a union activist. "He does whatever he's asked, works any shift, and then makes his reports on quality control mostly on his own time."

The payback for such worker obedience has meant cradle-to-grave job security, regular promotions and premium pay, guarantees that most U.S. firms can no longer match.

But the pressure for conformity is stronger at Toyota than most other major firms in Japan, in part because of its size, its history as one of the nation's earliest overseas success stories and because of its insular nature. This is a company, after all, that has its own namesake city.

For the Toyota Man, the demands involve following rigid military-style rules that teach workers to sacrifice individuality for the good of the group. The guidelines dictate nearly every facet of employees' day how they turn corners while walking on company property, where they eat their lunch and even how they conduct themselves at home.

"The real 'Toyota Way' is a culture of control," said Masaki Saruta, a business professor at Japan's Chu--kyo University. "The company is very proud of this concept. They've been doing it for 50 years."

Toyota officials say such criticism is unfounded.

"All companies have rules. ... But I don't think this is a company that makes everyone think the same way," said Paul Nolasco, a Toyota spokesman in Japan.

Jeffrey Liker, a University of Michigan professor who wrote the book, "The Toyota Way," challenged the notion that Toyota employees are corporate robots.

"It's a disciplined environment, but it's a system that seeks continuous improvement and respect for its people," Liker said. "It has provided a model for thousands of organizations throughout the world."

Some Toyota workers, however, describe a place in which individuality vanishes the moment they enter its fortresslike headquarters.

"Once you walk through that gate, you live by Toyota's constitution," said Oba, the union activist. "The outside constitution no longer applies."

Toyota's desire for control doesn't end at the plant, analysts say. The company has also extended its influence over a city where 80 percent of workers are employed in the auto industry. Eight of 47 City Council members in To-yota City were Toyota employees and two others work for Toyota subsidiaries, according to government data. One ex-Toyota Man served as mayor for 12 years in the 1960s and 1970s, officials said.

Toyota's Nolasco dismissed suggestions of undue company influence in government.

"People who work for Toyota make up a large percent of the population in the city," he said. "Whether you're talking libraries or swimming clubs, there's going to be a Toyota connection.

"It's natural. From the company's point of view, it's an expression of contributing to society."

Toyota also wields influence in schools, Sugiyama said. At the Toyota-run high school, along with the regular curriculum, students learn about assembly lines and the Toyota culture. "They're grooming the next generation of Toyota Men," he said.

The success of the Toyota Way has lured automakers from Germany and South Korea. "They want to learn the secret of the Toyota system," said Saruta, the business professor. "And I tell them, don't copy them. This is not a system you want to follow."