Jeff Kingston of Temple University in Japan thinks the entire Toyota disaster has its roots in Japan’s deferential corporate culture. Essentially, design problems weren’t sufficiently challenged and critical information wasn’t relayed properly to management due to Toyota’s traditional Japanese corporate culture.
He’s careful to remind that every nation shares the communication problems present within traditional Japanese companies too some degree. Obviously its easy to accuse any criticism of Japanese culture in this matter as horrendously simplistic and perhaps ignorant of what Japan is like.
Yet Mr. Kingston makes the point that he’s rarely seen a Japanese company perform well during a crisis, due to the same old problems — information takes too long to flow through the company since employees don’t want to tell their boss what he doesn’t want to hear, and because Japanese companies have a tendency to try and squash bad stories before they get to press.
WSJ: Initially, the safety defects were portrayed as a made-in-America problem, but now the design defects have hit home, raising new questions about Toyota’s famous quality control circles. Had this story not come out in the U.S. it is doubtful whether Toyota would have even considered a recall at home. But now, as international coverage of quality problems expand, the domestic media here have their backs covered and are likely to start asking some of the same questions and raising some of the same issues, if more politely.
Much is at stake for the company and the nation as Toyota tries to restore its reputation. There have been an alarming number of cases in recent years in which Japanese products have not met the high quality standards that the world and its own people expect of it. In some quarters this is seen as a barometer of a nation in decline, one that is adrift and slipping.
Thus to me what the entire Toyota saga shows is that if any company wants to be a world-class business, it has to be world-class through and through.
Many Japanese companies became extremely competitive based on world-class manufacturing processes. Yet perhaps they lagged when it came to corporate culture. Some might have thought this didn’t matter, Toyota isn’t in the media or consulting industry after all, it doesn’t need ‘soft’ competitive advantages as long as its cars are well built.
But what we’ve recently seen is that it indeed does need these things if it wants to not only become a global leader, but then remain one as well.
No manufacturer can claim to be world class if its soft assets aren’t handled just as efficiently as its inventory. Toyota (hopefully) has learned this the hard way.