Japan: star pupil becomes world's teacher in carmaking

If Japan restricted its booming car exports to a recession- plagued United States, would that really help Detroit sell more cars? No, reply Japanese carmakers. Detroit's problem is that American customers have turned away from the large gas guzzlers that have been its mainstay for decades.

Japanese and European small-car imports are only filling the gap until a new generation of small American cars catches up with the revolution in consumer demand.

"Friction between the US and Japan over our car exports to America is a temporary phenomenon," said Yoshitada Fujimaki over lunch in Toyota's paneled executive dining room here recently. Mr. Fujimaki is managing director in charge of public relations at Toyota, the world's third-largest carmaker, which produced nearly 3 million vehicles in 1979.

As Mr. Fujimaki spoke, genial and expansive, one had the feeling that US-Japanese relations are entering a new, uncharted phase: one in which Japan, so long the star pupil, is assuming in some respects the role of model and teacher.

Japanese carmakers make better cars than the "big three" because they are more efficient, more consistent, less wasteful, and much more painstaking. That was the gist of what Mr. Fujimaki had to say.

Seventeenth-century oil paintings hang in Toyota's executive dining room -- a British landscape, a French bouquet of flowers.

The talk was all about quality control and eliminating "the three Ms" and getting things done "just in time." The three M's are muri, muda, and mura -- or strain, waste, and unevenness. "Just in time" was the motto of the company's founder, Kiichiro Toyota, and his meaning was that the company was to make only "what was needed, when needed, as much as needed."

Out in the spotless factories scattered through Toyota City and its surrounding countryside, one sees the Toyota ideal at work. Car bodies with varicolored tags dangling from the hood move at a measured pace down the assembly line, while workers move quietly, quickly, efficiently in, out, and around them.

"Those tags show what must still be done to each car," said my guide. "If the tags say the wrong thing, then the whole car will be wrongly made." He laughed, confident that such a thing could never happen.

Any worker can stop the assembly line by pressing a button. "In Detroit," muttered one American visitor, "he'd stop the line to go get a Coke." Here, the worker stops the line because he sees something that seems wrong. His group leader comes over and tries to determine whether the fault is serious. A few minutes, the flaw is dealth with, and the line moves again.

Each worker is responsible for doing several things. There is very little he has to repeat in a purely mechanical way. Different models of the same car move down the assembly line.Again, this is an effort to keep human beings responsible for making judgments on what must be done to each car coming through their areas and to avoid the monotony of "Modern Times," where the machine is master of the man.

Where work is repetitive and difficult, robots are used as much as possible. A pair of Kawasaki "unimates," which look like praying mantises, do spot welds -- pecking away at hard-to-reach, difficult-to-get-to places inside the car at the rate of 19 welds per minute.

Toyota employees get the equivalent of $9 per hour, compared to $16 per hour in the US. "But we have no layoffs," said Mr. Fujimaki. They work 40 hours per week in two shifts, receiving 1.3 times normal pay for the night shift. They get 10 days of vacation in the summer, another 10 days at New Year's, plus 20 more days that the worker can take at any time he wants during the year.

Each employee is encouraged to make suggestions about improving procedures. Last year, said Mr. Fujimaki, there were more than 500,000 suggestions, of which 90 percent were recognized as worthy to be acted on. With 47,000 employees, that averages out to over 10 suggestions per employee.

Labor relations at Toyota are good, but union officials insist the union is not in management's pocket. Back in 1950, when Toyota had only 7,000 employees, there was a long, bitter strike that nearly killed the company. Work stopped for four months, 2,000 employees were dismissed, and the strike itself went on for a year.

"Our harmonious relations today are founded on the determination of both sides that never must such a strike happen again," said Mr. Fujimaki. What lessons, if any, are there in the Toyota experience for US carmakers?

Mr. Fujimaki will not openly say so, but it is obvious he feels that management and labor at Toyota have created, through the years, a work environment that enables the company to turn out fuel-efficient cars at prices the consumer can afford to pay. Can this environment be transferred elsewhere, say to the United States?

Mr. Fujimaki hesitates. Toyota is engaged in discussions with Ford on this very point -- a joint venture to build cars in the US. Without going into the subject at all, he responds that well, yes, Toyota has assembly plants in 20 countries around the world, including developed countries like Australia and developing countries like Indonesia.

In both countries the Japanese experience is starting to rub off. "I think it would be possible for us to build cars in the US also," he says. Then he adds quickly, "but not in Detroit."

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