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Looking For Answers In Japan's Toyota City

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Looking For Answers In Japan's Toyota City


Looking For Answers In Japan's Toyota City

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.

In Japan, there are reports that Toyota is getting ready to announce yet another recall, this time of the latest Prius hybrids, due to braking problems. U.S. dealers were told they'd be given more details of a Prius repair plan early this coming week. Toyota has already apologized for the recall of more than eight million cars over faulty gas pedals and floor mats.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Toyota City.

LOUISA LIM: This is ground zero of the Toyota meltdown. Im standing beside a modern steel and glass building, which is Toyota's headquarters here in Toyota Town in Toyota City. And this entire city basically revolves around Toyota. And I've come here to try to find an answer to the question that many people are asking: Just how did things go so badly wrong for the world's top automaker?

(Soundbite of film)

Unidentified Man: This is the Toyota production system, where manufactures eliminate waste to provide customers with well made products in a timely manner.

LIM: A film at the Toyota Museum outlines one part of the Toyota way. This philosophy underpins and unites the entire company. It's almost like a religion for employees, but old timers say the efficiency drive was taken too far.

Hisayoshi Atsumi drives a taxi now, a Toyota, of course. Before that, he worked for Toyota for 29 years.

Mr. HISAYOSHI ATSUMI (Former Employee, Toyota): (Through Translator) I think what caused the current problems is that Toyota cut costs excessively. They squeezed and squeezed. And even when there was nothing left to squeeze, they squeezed some more. That makes the workers' jobs hard.

LIM: Not only are their jobs hard, but Toyota regulates its employees' lives to an extraordinary degree. Here, Tadao Wakatsuki is demonstrating the Toyota way of turning corners when you walk. Stop first. Look left. Okay, look right. Okay, look forward. Okay, nobody is coming, 90-degree turn. Thats how everyone who works for Toyota turns corners. Wakatsuki spent his entire working life at Toyota, 45 years of service. He enumerates some other Toyota rules.

Mr. TADAO WAKATSUKI (Retired Employee, Toyota): (Through Translator) If you walk around with your hands in your pockets, you'll be told to take them out. If you drive to work, you'll file a report describing the route you take and the risks. I would say there's no freedom at Toyota. It's totalitarian.

LIM: Four years ago, he started his own union, the All Toyota Labor Union. Worried that standards were slipping too far, he wrote to management outlining his fears.

Mr. WAKATSUKI: (Through Translator) The same cheap parts are used in too many different models. Design and planning is outsourced and it's done by computers. The trial and error period for new cars is too short and there's a shortage of experienced workers.

LIM: He believes Toyota's fatal flaw was its global ambition. It overreached its capabilities and cut too many corners to snag the number one spot. The troubles were known by its workers, he said. But the emphasis on conformity meant few spoke out.

But one Toyota man did speak out. Last October, he publicly accused the company of being guilty of hubris born of success, of undisciplined pursuit of more, and of their denial of risk. That man was none other than Toyota's President, Akio Toyoda, who was outlining the stages described in a book by Jim Collins called "How the Mighty Fall." Toyota is grasping for salvation, he said, or else it faces irrelevance or death.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Toyota City, Japan.

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