03/02/2010, 00.00
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Toyota chief vs. the US, two cultures face off

by Pino Cazzaniga
The testimony of the president of Toyota before a congressional committee highlights the differences in corporate cultures. In Japan, the head of a corporation is expected to ensure harmony among employees and boost morale rather than be an economic expert.
Tokyo (AsiaNews) – The hard grilling of Toyota president Akio Toyoda, 53, by a US House congressional committee (pictured) on 24 February shows how different the corporate cultures of Japan and the United States are. Yoshi Inaba, chairman and CEO of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., and Ray LaHood, US Transport secretary, also appeared before the committee to answer questions about the safety of Toyota cars, recently raised by a series of accidents caused by flaws affecting breaks, gas pedals and electronic fuel pumps. In recent weeks, Toyota was forced to recall 8.5 million cars because of these and other problems. In a committee room, crowded with reporters, photographers and people from around the world, congressmen asked about how much the company’s top management knew about these problems, whether they concealed them or failed to inform Toyota customers of what was at risk.

Since 1998, Toyota has been the world’s biggest automaker, employing hundreds of thousands of people in Japan and around the world. In article in Washington Post, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said, “When I announced three years ago that Toyota would open a U.S. vehicle assembly plant in Blue Springs, Miss., I said Toyota was the world's premier automobile manufacturer. I still believe that.” In the same piece, the governor noted that the Japanese company had operations in ten American states, with some 200,000 employees. However, because of serious problems with some cars and resulting deadly accidents, the company was forced to recall millions of cars and the government had to act.

Two tragic examples

Two women told the members of the congressional committee their stories. One spoke to the committee; the other stood silent, letting the facts speak for themselves.

Rhonda Smith, 65, a social worker from Tennessee, said that in 2006 she was driving her car, a Toyota Lexus, when it suddenly surged. She slammed on the emergency brake and put the car in reverse, but it continued to speed down the freeway. “I prayed for God to help me.”, she said, trying to hold back tears.

After travelling six miles (ten kilometres), Smith said, the car began to slow, by itself, and by the time it reached 33 mph (53 kph), she was able to pull over and turn the engine off.

“Shame on you Toyota for being so greedy,” she told at Toyoda and Inaba, looking straight at them. “Shame on you NHTSA for not doing your job!” she added, looking at Secretary Ray Lahood.

After her narrow escape, she informed both Toyota and the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) of her mishap, to no avail.

A grandmother from San Francisco, Ms Fe Lastrella, was also present, but she did not speak. That was unnecessary. Everyone had heard from media about the horrible accident of 28 August 2009 that wiped out her family. On that day, 45-year-old Mark Saylor, a California public servant, was driving a rented Toyota Lexus. He was on holiday and taking his wife Cleofe, their 13-year-old daughter Mahala, and 38-year-old brother-in-law Christ Lastrella, on a trip. High speed (160 km) was blamed for their deadly accident. “Hold on! Pray!” Mr Saylor was heard saying before the recording of the 911 call from Chris’ mobile phone ended. The car went off the road and into the bank of a dry riverbed. The floor mat had trapped the gas pedal. No one survived.

Speaking to reporters, Ms Lastrella said, “I'm here to speak for my four children and for the safety of the consumers through the world.” I “don't want another family to suffer like we are suffering.”

Akio Toyoda, the unlucky “prince”

Toyota’s president was able to appease the members on the congressional committee by showing contrition and exhibiting a cooperative attitude. He repeatedly apologises for the large recall and extended his condolences to Saylor family. “I will do everything in my power to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again,” he said.

Even the harshest critics were mollified by the president’s explanations and during his testimony they avoided any aggressive behaviour since Toyota admitted its guilt and acknowledged that it sped up production at the expense of safety. Toyoda pledged his company would go back to its old philosophy, which is to give absolute priority to consumer needs and safety.

Akio Toyoda’s appointment on 23 June last year was received with enthusiasm by the Toyota family. As the grandson of the company’s founder, he was greeted like a “prince”. At a time when the company was still expanding, a spirit of harmony prevailed within. However, just six months later, the carmaker had to face its greatest crisis in 70 years of existence.

No one relished the idea of appearing before the US Congress. At the beginning, it was thought that Inaba could do the job. However, a request by the chairman of the congressional committee convinced the head of Toyota to appear “voluntarily”.

On his arrival in Washington on 20 February, he refused all interviews to concentrate on his testimony before Congress, trying to understand how US culture worked. He won . . . for the time being.

A culture of harmony

Ms Smith’s traumatic experience explains her emotional outburst but does not justify her harsh moral judgement. Cultural differences rather an ethics matter more in this issue. A Western corporate leader operates according to different cultural principles compared to his Japanese counterpart.

In Japan, harmony is the highest value. Company executives are rarely management professionals but act like cheerleaders for the rank-and-file. “In a Japanese company, the top man isn't the one calling the shots. He is looked up to as a symbol, a bit like the emperor,” says Toyoaki Nishida, professor of business at Chubu University. Even though the company president wields no power, it would be wrong to consider him powerless.  Like the emperor, who is seen as the father of the nation, top executives are psychologically perceived as the head of the company-as-family.

Parissa Haghirian, associate professor of International Management at Sophia (Catholic) University in Tokyo, said that Japanese companies are group-oriented, and generally don't look to one person to steer the whole, unlike the West, where executives are hired for ideas and leadership. Japanese top executives are team leaders who harmonise everyone's views to avoid conflict and create consensus.

In Japanese, this is called ‘nemawashi’, which translates as ‘laying the groundwork around the roots’ (behind the scenes) before planting the tree. Neglecting nemawashi is considered a foolish and sure way to walk into failure.

Although it is bureaucratic and time-consuming, but once a decision is made, everyone is on the same page, and action proceeds quickly without infighting.

This culture enabled Toyota to expand and reach its levels of efficiency. When Kiichiro Toyoda, Akio’s grandfather, set up the Toyota Motor Company in 1950, he called it Toyota (slight alteration of the family name) not to honour his family, but rather as a way to see its customers as part of the family with the right to be treated as such.

At a press conference, Toyoda said he was ready to go back to the principles of the "Toyota Way", and to pay more attention to customer needs than sales figures.

The irony is that in an international economy, loyalty to Japanese culture calls for dialogue with other cultures, that of the West for instance, more specifically that of the United States. The two cultures are not opposed to one another, but are instead complementary.

Symbolically, Japan’s culture stood alongside Mr Toyoda as he spoke in the congressional hearing. His testimony appears to have been a success. Indeed, at the end he said that his company would operate in the United States in accordance with American cultural values.

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