‘Toyota Man’s’ conformist ways come under fire


He works punishing hours, clocks in unpaid overtime without complaint and allows his bosses to call the shots both at the office and at home.

He’s the archetype of the perfect employee. He’s a Toyota Man.

Largely upon his shoulders, Toyota Motor Corp. last year surpassed General Motors Co. as the planet’s bestselling automaker. He’s the key ingredient behind Toyota’s record of high quality (now tainted by its sudden acceleration problem) and productivity.

The Toyota Man’s handbook is the decades-old “Toyota Way,” a company manifesto that emphasizes continuous improvement and teamwork in the car-making process -- a corporate game plan imitated and studied across Japan and the industrialized world.

But as the company faces a worldwide recall of several top models over alleged safety defects, some scholars and others are putting a decidedly more negative spin on the company’s pristine Toyota Man image.

“The Toyota Man always says yes,” said Hiroshi Oba, a veteran assembly-line worker who rebelled against the image to become a union activist. “He does whatever he’s asked, works any shift, and then makes his reports on quality control -- mostly on his own time.”

The payback for such worker obedience has meant cradle-to-grave job security, regular promotions and premium pay, guarantees that most U.S. firms can no longer match.

In many nations, including the U.S., companies have sought to exert control over workers’ off-duty habits. A century ago, carmaker Henry Ford used private detectives to spy on employees to make sure they didn’t drink too much and had “unblemished” sex lives. Even today, some U.S. companies have fired employees for dating colleagues or gaining too much weight, and have refused insurance policies for those who engage in such risky activities as sky-diving or riding motorcycles.

But pressure for conformity is stronger at Toyota than most other major firms in Japan, in part because of its size, its history as one of the nation’s earliest overseas success stories and because of its insular nature. This is a company, after all, that has it own namesake city.

For the Toyota Man, the demands involve following rigid military-style rules that teach workers to sacrifice individuality for the good of the group. The guidelines dictate nearly every facet of employees’ day -- how they turn corners while walking on company property, where they eat their lunch and even how they conduct themselves at home.

“The real ‘Toyota Way’ is a culture of control,” said Masaki Saruta, a business professor at Japan’s Chukyo University who has written several books on Toyota. “The company is very proud of this concept. They’ve been doing it for 50 years.”

Toyota officials say such criticism is unfounded.

“All companies have rules; it’s common sense,” said Paul Nolasco, a Toyota spokesman in Japan. “But I don’t think this is a company that makes everyone think the same way.”

Jeffrey Liker, a University of Michigan professor who wrote the book “The Toyota Way,” challenged the notion that Toyota employees are corporate robots.

“It’s a disciplined environment, but it’s a system that seeks continuous improvement and respect for its people,” said Liker, who spoke to dozens of Toyota workers to research his book. “It has provided a model for thousands of organizations throughout the world.”

Some Toyota workers, however, describe a place in which individuality vanishes the moment they enter its fortress-like headquarters.

“Once you walk through that gate, you live by Toyota’s constitution,” said Oba, the union activist. “The outside constitution no longer applies.”

Veteran Toyota worker Tadao Wakatsuki, who started his own union in 2006, said the rules governed how employees turn a corner: stop and look right before proceeding with a curt 90-degree turn.

“Toyota is a totalitarian place,” Wakatsuki said. “You’re not allowed to have your own ideas. But Toyota has always hidden what goes on inside their company. No one speaks out.”

At the Toyota plant here, workers cannot put their hands in their pockets. Hall monitors report scofflaws. Commuters who drive to work must report their routes to bosses. Those taking trips on days off must file such details as where they stopped for breaks, he said.

In 1996, Darius Mehri went to work as a computer simulation engineer for a Toyota subsidiary and later wrote the book “Notes From Toyota-Land: An American Engineer in Japan.” His memoir paints the Toyota system as one based on subservience and intimidation and governed by what he calls a “culture of rules.”

“The level of employee control at Toyota is almost fanatical -- all basically to increase production,” Mehri said. “There’s no privacy at all, no walls in the work spaces. Employees sit at desks facing each other surrounded by bosses on the periphery.”

Peer pressure was also rampant, he said. “If you don’t finish your tasks on time, your whole work group is punished. Bosses will look at your research and humiliate you in front of the group.”

Naoshi Sugiyama, a business lecturer at Chukyo University who has researched Toyota, said employees put up with the system because of the pay, benefits and status that come with a Toyota employee badge. Those include day-care centers for children and working for a company with a nationwide reputation.

“The Toyota Man enjoys a high social status as part of the company,” Sugiyama said. “Workers there feel superior to others.”

Toyota’s desire for control doesn’t end at the plant, analysts say. The company has also extended its influence over a city where 80% of workers are employed in the automotive industry. Eight of 47 City Council members in Toyota City were Toyota employees and two others work for Toyota subsidiaries, according to 2007 Toyota City government statistics. One ex-Toyota Man also served as mayor for 12 years in the 1960s and 1970s, officials said.

Toyota’s Nolasco dismissed suggestions of undue company influence in government.

“People who work for Toyota make up a large percent of the population in the city,” he said. “Whether you’re talking libraries or swimming clubs, there’s going to be a Toyota connection.

“It’s natural. From the company’s point of view, it’s an expression of contributing to society. We’re here.”

Toyota also wields influence in local schools, Sugiyama said. At the Toyota-run high school, in addition to the regular curriculum, students learn the essentials of working on an assembly line as well as the Toyota culture.

“They’re grooming the next generation of Toyota Men,” he said.

The success of the Toyota Way has lured automakers from Germany and South Korea. “They want to learn the secret of the Toyota system,” said Saruta, the business professor. “And I tell them, don’t copy them. This is not a system you want to follow.”