Sunday, March 28, 2010

Toyota workers' image takes beating in recalls

TOYOTA CITY, Japan — 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 became a union activist. "He does whatever he's asked, works any shift, and then makes his reports on quality control — 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.

'Outside' control

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. 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 its own namesake city.

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