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Lessons from Kiichiro Toyoda

I was chatting with Dr. Daniel Jones at Lean at the Lean Summit in Lyon about the origins of Toyota and lean.  He told me the story of how a little company facing huge odds in pre and post-war Japan grew to be the world’s largest auto maker, which I found just fascinating and completely relevant to our climate change challenge.  

Lean is most often associated with production and process improvement, but lean grew from the need for product development.  Story goes, in the 30’s, Japan was a growing market for automobile sales.  The Japanese were not just curiously interested in cars, they were buying them at an astonishing rate.  However, these were foreign-made cars, not domestic.  In fact, when established American companies like Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corporation expanded production in Japan to meet the growing demand, Japanese automakers were just starting out.   Toyota was a loom factory at this time, Toyoda Automatic Loom Works. They were skilled in manufacturing and innovation (for instance, inventing the world’s most advanced loom) but were worlds away from the automobile industry.

Kiichiro Toyoda, with the encouragement of his father Toyoda Loom Works founder Sakichi Toyoda, travelled to the United States to learn more about the automobile industry.  He was instantly enchanted and determined to make an automobile.  He knew that an immediate leap had to be taken into this business and upon returning to Japan set plans in motion to start development.

In addition to entering a completely different industry, Kiichiro didn’t want to build the “popular” model of car in Japan.  He wanted to build a new-fangled concept called the “passenger car”.  Larger, more powerful, and virtually unheard of in 1930 in Japan, it was a baffling choice considering the current state of income levels and Japan’s narrow roads.  The other Japanese makers acknowledged the potential of the small passenger car market, but none dared to tackle the challenge of competing with behemoth foreign makers.   

Ironically, the skepticism and fear of doing something completely different gave Kiichiro resolve and purpose.  Toyoda Loom Works ramped preparations to enter the automobile business at a fast pace. In the beginning stages of production, the company had to quickly meet challenges, both in manufacturing the complex body and making it affordable.  This was how lean was born.  Learning to do more with less and demanding quality as the only option (because it was the only option).  In May 1935, Toyota produced its first passenger car, the A1.

So how does this relate to becoming a Lean and Green company?  The current ‘take-make-dispose’ linear economy results in massive waste and can’t be sustained for much longer.  According to Richard Girling’s book Rubbish! published in 2005, 90% of the raw materials used in manufacturing become waste before the product leaves the factory while 80% of products made get thrown away within the first six months of their life.  The effect on our planet is disastrous and causing irreparable harm.  Like the automobile industry in the 30’s,  we’re on the brink of change and opportunity .  The companies who reinvent themselves to create products and processes that actually nourish our planet will also flourish.

My friend and Lean warrior Jean-Claude says, “most people hate to lose but don’t have the want to win”.  If you are looking for a lean green role model, look no further than Kiichiro.  He had the want to win.  As soon as he was convinced of the right course of action, he acted immediately, reinvented the company, and ignored the skeptics and industry giants to stay true to his vision.   

We’ve been talking about climate change, carbon emissions, the water crisis for years.    I remember watching programs about global warming when I was a kid.  30 years later, we’re still having the same conversation.  The Cop21 Agreement is a last ditch effort to make changes happen … in another 30 years.  Why is there such a delay?   Lean companies can be like Kiichiro and start immediately, reinvent products and processes that are cradle-to-cradle and eliminate harmful environmental waste.  


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