Toyota’s Stumble is Not a Metaphor for Japan Inc.

Toyota’s management had problems before the brakes, writes Asia Sentinel.

Toyota’s dramatic fall from grace has come as a great shock in Japan, especially as many abroad tend to view this as emblematic of the country’s decline. Inside Japan, though, the car manufacturer’s troubles are seen as more political than technical in origin.

All the explanations underlining Toyota’s problem of global overstretch, however, make the prognostication of Japan’s demise premature.

Toyota is synonymous with manufacturing excellence and Japan’s international success. And manufacturing, especially cars, is a major contributor to the country’s export-dependent economy and economic growth. The so-called Toyota way is the stuff of manufacturing legend: a “cult” of unceasing improvement (kaizen) in the quest for manufacturing perfection; a “just-in-time” system to avoid cluttering the factory and raising warehousing costs; and the empowerment of every line worker in the factory to stop the production line if any imperfection in the assembly kit or vehicle is spotted.

Until its recent troubles, the Toyota way seemed to have squared the manufacturing circle: the amazing ability unceasingly to improve quality and production while reducing cost by management and workers pulling in the same direction. But the mass automobile recalls, around eight and a half million, suggest that Toyota has lost its way and skidded off the track. Even though President Akio Toyoda performed acceptably at his US congressional hearing, Toyota will be dogged by legal battles, if not class action suits, in the US for a number of deaths in crashes apparently due to sudden and unintended acceleration coupled with failed brakes.