Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is the "Toyota Way" behind the recalls?

A century ago, Frederick W. Taylor, a mechanical engineer whose book The Principles of Scientific Management influenced generations of business owners and managers, had this to say about American working people:

“Underworking … constitutes the greatest evil with which the working people are now afflicted. … Instead of using every effort to turn out the largest possible amount of work, (a worker) deliberately plans to do as little as he safely can, to turn out far less work than he is well able to do; in many instances to do not more than one-third to one-half of a proper day’s work.”

With that contemptuous attitude at a time of sweatshop abuse and rampant child labor, Taylor proceeded to propose that every second and every movement at the workplace be monitored and scientifically managed to eliminate waste, inefficiency, and labor costs in the cause of high productivity and company profits.

Proponents of the so-called “Toyota Way”—the production philosophy employed by the same Japanese giant now reeling from the recall of 8.5 million cars since November—say it’s a “democratic Taylorism” that values workers even as it pushes them constantly toward “continuous improvement,” known in Toyota-speak as kaizen.

What role did the “Toyota Way” play in the current recall? It’s the kind of question you’re never going to hear Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour ask, nor the governors and members of Congress from Kentucky, Texas, West Virginia, and other states where Toyota has built plants. All you’re going to hear from them is a resounding “The Toyota Way Is Okay!”

Indeed, the “Toyota Way” of kaizen and so-called “lean management” is now taught in the public schools at Scott County, Ky., where the company built its first solely owned U.S. plant in 1986—at a cost of nearly $150 million to Kentucky taxpayers.

Even Kindergarteners now learn Toyota-think in Scott County, Ky. With Toyota-trained managers overseeing the process, students learn, for example, to be creative in determining what jobs can be eliminated at a work site without negatively affecting production. What they don’t learn is whether they should question the “Toyota Way”.

Expect public schools in and near Blue Springs, Miss., where the company plans to build a $1.3 billion, 2,000-worker assembly plant, to be incorporating the “Toyota Way” into their future curricula. The University of Mississippi is already there. Earlier this month, the university’s Undergraduate Council approved program and course changes in the School of Engineering that, in cooperation with the newly established Center for Manufacturing Excellence, will teach “lean manufacturing and the Toyota Production System.”

Yet, all is not rosy for Toyota or its way these days. With millions of its cars on recall for pedal, floormat, and brake problems, Toyota president Akio Toyoda has apologized to Congress, television's Larry King, and the nation of Japan, which the New York Times recently called practically a “one-company town.” No company more symbolizes Japanese economic might than Toyota.

Yet sales are dropping. The U.S. Congress is investigating. Even the Prius hybrid, the pride of Toyota, Japan’s best-selling car last year, and the car that is to be built at the Blue Springs plant, is in recall. Toyota has had eight major recalls since September 2007. Lawsuits were filed in February relating vehicle deaths to Toyota deficiencies.

Certified auditor Katy Cameron is probably nodding her head at the irony. After working more than two decades at the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., (NUMMI) plant in Alameda County, Calif. she filed a lawsuit in 2007 claiming the jointly run General Motors-Toyota operation took revenge on her after she complained of shoddy practices that allowed cars to be put on the market with bad brakes, faulty seat belts, and a host of other problems. It was her job to spot such problems. The company apparently didn't like what she reported.

More than a year ago, a 65-page report by the New York-based National Labor Committee claimed Toyota subcontractors in Japan forced employees to work 16-hour days and seven days a week at sub-minimum wages to build the same Prius planned for Blue Springs. The report also claimed that migrant workers at Toyota faced a constant threat of deportation if they complained about sweatshop-like conditions.

To Frederick W. Taylor, workers were merely objects to be scientifically managed into little more than highly productive automatons. The “democratic Taylorism” of the Toyota Way is supposed to be an improvement in that philosophy. The company’s current troubles are hardly proof.

1 comment:

  1. Toyota & Honda dropped the ball on handling the recalls , they should have came forward with a full disclosure. Instead of waiting for a huge media blitz and tons of public pressure. But Toyota & Honda are not alone , I never seen so many car companies having recalls all at the same time. I had no idea my car which is not even a Toyota or Honda, was affected until I searched on and found I had a bad Anti Lock control unit on my 2008 Pontiac G8 , So be careful