Wednesday, December 5, 2007


Once upon a time it was all about quality; and the United States was scrambling to learn lessons about "Total Quality Management" (TQM) from the Japanese. Some of the best lessons seemed to be coming from Toyota; and, while Ford was sloganeering with "Quality is Job 1," General Motors decided to partner with Toyota in a concerted effort to plant TQM on American soil. The result was New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI), established in Fremont, California, in 1984 and a "poster child" demonstration that the United States could learn about quality from Japan.

That was then, as they say. 2007, on the other hand, was the first year in which a Toyota vehicle received bad marks from Consumer Reports. What happened to the quality? One answer may lie in a story filed this morning by Chang-Ran Kim, Asia auto correspondent for Reuters. Here is the lead:

When Kenichi Uchino collapsed and died on the factory floor before dawn one February day in 2002, he was into his fourth hour of overtime.

In his final month at the Toyota car plant, he had logged more than 106 hours overtime, most of it unpaid. He died from sudden heart failure at just 30 years old.

A district court ruled last week that Uchino had literally worked himself to death. It was a hard-fought victory for his widow, Hiroko, after almost six years of legal battles while holding down her own job and raising two young children.

But the issue of 'karoshi', a household Japanese term meaning 'death from overwork' is underplayed in Japan, she says. Workers are too often expected to sacrifice their personal lives and happiness for the company's benefit.

The Japanese believed that quality could only emerge if all workers were personally invested in doing their best in every assigned task; but that precept neither said nor intended anything about sacrificing "personal lives and happiness for the company's benefit." However, Kim has probably tapped into why the priorities of quality seem to have been displaced:

Toyota is on its way to overtaking General Motors as the world's biggest automaker. Much of its growth has been due to expanded production in Japan, and the company has repeatedly lamented a shortage of engineers and skilled workers.

In other words, regardless of any past relationships around NUMMI, Toyota is now hell-bent on taking over General Motors' place in the Number 1 slot; and, from an operational point of view, "hell-bent" means "fiercely competitive." This leads to a hypothesis that may eventually graduate to the list of laws that I have been compiling on this blog:

Increased aggression in competition leads to decreased attention to quality.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that such aggression in competition will abate any time soon. One of the unintended consequences of globalization seems to be a culture that recognizes that, if one can now "play for all the marbles," one is obliged to do so, lest all those marbles fall into a competitor's hands. Thus, while we are "amusing ourselves to death" in the arena of political discourse, we are working ourselves to death to keep the economic wolf from the door. This raises the reductio ad absurdum question: What happens to quality when all the workers have died of exhaustion?

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