Akio speaks to those responsible for Toyota’s future
On April 1, Toyota Motor Corporation held its entrance ceremony for new employees in Japan, which is part of the long-standing Japanese custom to start a fresh year at schools and companies in April. Last year, the ceremony could not be held due to the spread of COVID-19. This year’s event was held remotely, attended by some 1,100 new recruits welcomed into the company on the same day and mid-career employees who had joined since May 2020.
While the remote ceremony format tends to be seen as a ‘Plan B’ to the traditional style of bringing people together in large venues, it has the advantage of conveying the speaker’s expression and enthusiasm up close.
In delivering his message at the ceremony, President Akio Toyoda was eager to speak directly to each and every participant. He did not shy away from speaking about Toyota’s painful truths and management challenges that would have been avoided at a regular entrance ceremony.
When Akio speaks about the future, he never fails to refer to Toyota’s origins as well. In addressing new colleagues who would be responsible for Toyota’s future, Akio wanted to ensure that they knew where the company had come from. This intent can be seen throughout the message he delivered.
Advice from ‘two senior employees’
The entrance ceremony was over in about twenty minutes, but afterward Akio met with representatives of the attendees for an informal talk. They were joined by Executive Fellow and committed genba-man Mitsuru Kawai, who had been with the company for 55 years.
The ten participants came from different backgrounds and occupations. Besides new recruits and mid-career hires, the diverse group included medical staff from Toyota Memorial Hospital, as well as an employee who joined the company as an athlete for the company’s team.
The informal gathering took the form of a Q&A session, with Akio and Kawai answering questions from this year’s recruits.
What kind of hardships had these ‘two senior employees’ faced, and how had they dealt with difficulties? Here are some of the exchanges, which may offer hints for those embarking on a new career.
On being president: ‘Perhaps today is the day I step down…’
Q. What has been the biggest challenge in serving as president?
When I was appointed president, somebody told me, “It’s no big deal for a company to change its president. But the caliber of the president determines the caliber of that company”.
Those words made me feel incredibly uneasy and insignificant. Already past fifty, I wondered how I could possibly expand my ability.
I came to the conclusion that I was feeling pressure because I was too conscious of being president.
Since becoming president, there has not been a single year of peace and quiet. Every year without fail, something comes up.
In the first year, I took over when the company had fallen into a deficit, and soon found myself called before a public hearing in the U.S. (over the recall issue). What became clear to me then was that, even more than being president, I was the person responsible for this company. I felt that it was my role to make decisions even when there were no clear answers.
When people hear the word ‘president’ they envision ‘someone important’, but I have never thought of myself as important. Upon becoming president, the words that came out of my mouth were, "I want to be as close to genba (the front lines of the workplace) as possible”.
Just as people talk of ‘someone important’, they think of the president as a person with power. However, (the important thing is) how you exercise that power.
There are people in the world whose hard work goes unrewarded. I think my title is good only in the sense that it allows me to use my influence to ensure that hard-working people are rewarded.
The result is that, for the eleven years of my presidency, I have spent each day thinking, ‘Perhaps today is the day I step down...’
(In that way), these eleven years have been made up of ensuring that, in any given moment, I say and do the right thing as the person in charge. So it has been far from peaceful.
Then, the conversation shifted slightly away from the question to Toyota’s ‘philosophy’. Akio shared with his new colleagues the basic mindset that should guide them throughout their time at Toyota.
I believe it is through skills and philosophy that Toyota passes on the things that make us Toyota.
That ‘philosophy’ is the Toyota Production System (TPS). As you can see here (with the historical Toyota automatic loom in the room), weaving devices needed a person to stand in front of each and every machine in the past.
Why was that? They had to restock the thread and keep watching over the machine to make sure the thread didn’t break.
Without using sensors, this machine is able to stop if the thread breaks and restock when it runs out. It was created by young Sakichi Toyoda (who would later become founder of the Toyota Group) with little more than elementary school education.
One more thing. The weaving machines produced cotton dust, which affected the lungs of those who worked there. On top of that, they had to suck on threads to pass them through holes, which made their lungs even worse. This problem was solved by a single patent.
What we must learn from this is the importance of visiting the genba and solving problems through genchi genbutsu. That should be the starting point for development at Toyota.
This is the origin and philosophy behind what we at Toyota call ‘jidoka’, automation with a human touch.
“You are here today because you didn’t give up”
Q. How should we respond when faced with difficulties?
Don’t be surprised when difficulties arise. In this world, not everything works out so easily.
But I’m sure there have been times in your life when things weren’t easy, right? Despite that, you are here today because you didn’t give up.
There will be difficulties. That’s when you need friends, and family. There might be supervisors whom you don’t think you can rely on, but there will be some on whom you can. The same goes for the people you oversee – some may not have enough capability, but you will also find those on whom you can depend.
You don’t have to see it as a big deal – enjoy the journey and everything it brings.
In fact, even I sometimes find myself as a negative person, but I accept the fact that life is not all smooth sailing.
In my case, too, there were many difficulties, but I tried to put in my best effort into everything I did, regardless of the outcome.
Any time that a supervisor pointed out that my work was lacking in some way, inside I felt, “You’re the one who expected too much, without properly figuring out what I’m capable of”.
That’s why I always tell people at Toyota to ‘figure out what each person is capable of’. When assigning work to a subordinate, you must carefully assess each individual’s knowledge and ability, then set goals slightly above that. You can’t simply approach everyone the same way.
There are some who reach their goals easily, while others never quite get there despite their best efforts.
Personally, if I have given my best, I have no regrets. I’m sure you will face many difficulties moving forward, but each difficulty will make you stronger. No matter what, you can say to yourself, ‘Look how far I’ve come since then’.
“We want athletes to show us how to live”
Q. What does Toyota expect of its athletes?
In Toyota’s case, we have two professional league teams: Alvark Tokyo (basketball) and Nagoya Grampus (soccer). In corporate sports, we have nearly 40 clubs in total.
Whether playing professionally or for a club, an athlete’s time in the spotlight is brief. I think that in order to demonstrate their full potential in that fleeting moment, they lead a rather stoic life.
To enable athletes to concentrate on making the most of their time, rather than saying goodbye upon retirement we offer second and third careers, including as coaches or association staff, where they can support people in being active or contribute to society through the Olympics and other sports-related endeavors.
I see sports as a great way to develop people, and I was a keen sportsman myself. We want our athletes to show us how to live. I feel that they present a condensed version of human life.
One way to live is to take on challenges without fear of making mistakes. What we look for in our athletes is not only whether they win or lose, but what they do to come out on top in that world. We want them to show us that way of life.
For a long time, I have been an advisor for women’s softball. When I go to give them a pep talk, I tell them, "Be grateful for the chance to practice every day on this wonderful field, in this great environment (where you can focus on competing)”.
The way to show your gratitude is to play your hardest, each and every pitch. Seeing you do your best gives our employees courage, energy, and motivation, and they will be eager to cheer you on. Both (athletes and workers) must maintain a sense of gratitude.
Given that you are watched by the outside world, I think this attitude is particularly important for athletes.