Is Toyota's Brakes Disaster Tied to How It Treats Workers Like Profit-Oriented Robots?

A century ago, Frederick W. Taylor, the mechanical engineer whose book The Principles of Scientific Management influenced generations of business owners and managers, had this to say about American working people:

"Underworking  constitutes the greatest evil with which the working people are now afflicted.  Instead of using every effort to turn out the largest possible amount of work, (a worker) deliberately plans to do as little as he safely can, to turn out far less work than he is well able to do; in many instances to do not more than one-third to one-half of a proper day's work."

With that contemptuous attitude at a time of sweatshop abuse and rampant child labor, Taylor proceeded to propose that every second and every movement at the workplace be monitored and scientifically managed to eliminate waste, inefficiency, and labor costs in the cause of high productivity and company profits.

Proponents of the so-called "Toyota Way" -- the production philosophy employed by the same Japanese giant now reeling from the recall of 8.5 million cars since November -- say it's a "democratic Taylorism" that values workers even as it pushes them constantly toward "continuous improvement," known in Toyota-speak as kaizen.

"The key difference between Taylorism and the Toyota Way is that the Toyota Way preaches that the worker is the most valuable resource -- not just a pair of hands taking orders, but an analyst and problem solver," writes Jeffrey K. Lyker in his laudatory 2004 book, The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World's Greatest Manufacturer.

Is the "Toyota Way" truly democratic? What role did it play in the current recall? These are questions you're never going to hear asked by the governors and members of Congress from Mississippi, Kentucky, Texas, West Virginia, and other states where Toyota has built plants. All you're going to hear from them is a resounding "The Toyota Way Is Okay!"

Indeed, the "Toyota Way" of kaizen, "just-in-time" production, and so-called "lean management" is now taught in the public schools at Scott County, Ky., where the company built its first solely owned US plant in 1986 -- at a cost of nearly $150 million to Kentucky taxpayers.

Even kindergarteners now learn Toyota-think in Scott County, Ky. With Toyota-trained managers overseeing the process, students learn, for example, to be creative in determining what jobs can be eliminated at a work site without negatively affecting production. What they don't learn is to question the "Toyota Way."

Expect public schools in and near Blue Springs, Miss., where the company plans to build a $1.3 billion, 2,000-worker assembly plant, to be incorporating the "Toyota Way" into their future curricula. The University of Mississippi is already there. Earlier this month, the university's Undergraduate Council approved program and course changes in the School of Engineering that, in cooperation with the newly established Center for Manufacturing Excellence, will teach "lean manufacturing and the Toyota Production System."

In his 1972 book, Factory of Despair: Diary of a Seasonal Auto Worker, Japanese journalist Kamata Satoshi described his six-month stint as a worker at the Toyota plant in Toyota City, Japan. The picture he painted was of a work culture that resembled the pre-United Auto Workers era at Ford and General Motors, when the "speed up" -- a management-ordered increase in worker production requirements to nearly impossible levels -- and the ever-present threat of layoffs were the rule.

After revisiting the plant a decade later, Satoshi found a feudalistic system still in place, one that might tout worker input and democracy but which in reality was more interested in worker control. In an interview with US journalist Tim Shorrock, Satoshi said he worried about future Toyota workers in the United States. "I think the miserable conditions of Japanese workers will be passed right on to American workers."

All is certainly not rosy for Toyota or its way these days. With millions of its cars on recall for pedal, floormat, and brake problems, Toyota president Akio Toyoda has apologized to the nation of Japan, which the New York Times recently called practically a "one-company town." No company more symbolizes Japanese economic might than Toyota.

Sales are dropping. The US Congress is investigating. Even the Prius hybrid, the pride of Toyota, Japan's best-selling car last year, and the car that is to be built at the Blue Springs plant, is in recall. Toyota has had eight major recalls since September 2007. Two lawsuits were filed this month relating vehicle deaths to Toyota deficiencies. One of them was in Mississippi, the other in Nebraska.

Certified auditor Katy Cameron is probably nodding her head at the irony. After working more than two decades at the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., (NUMMI) plant in Alameda County, Calif., she filed a lawsuit in 2007 claiming the jointly run General Motors-Toyota operation took revenge on her after she complained of shoddy practices that allowed cars to be put on the market with bad brakes, faulty seat belts, and a host of other problems. It was her job to spot such problems. The company apparently didn't like what she reported.

More than a year ago, a 65-page report by the New York-based National Labor Committee claimed Toyota subcontractors in Japan forced employees to work 16-hour days and seven days a week at sub-minimum wages to build the same Prius planned for Blue Springs. The report claimed that Vietnamese and Chinese migrant workers at Toyota faced a constant threat of deportation if they complained about sweatshop-like conditions, and it alleged that Toyota subsidiary, Toyota Tsusho, worked with the Burmese military dictatorship in operating parts plants and producing military vehicles even after it claimed to have severed the connection in 2001.

Toyota's response was that it took the NLC claims seriously and would investigate.

One of Toyota's top engineers died in the summer of 2008 after working an average of 80 hours overtime during each of the previous two months. According to a Japanese labor bureau ruling, the 45-year-old engineer died of overwork. The previous year a Japanese court ordered the government to compensate the wife of another Toyota worker who collapsed and died in 2002. The man was only 30 years old.

Toyota workers in Kentucky have also complained about major problems such as the widespread use of temporary workers, unjustified firings and company refusal to take responsibility for on-the-job injuries.

To Frederick W. Taylor, workers were merely objects to be scientifically managed into little more than highly productive automatons. The "democratic Taylorism" of the Toyota Way is supposed to be an improvement in that philosophy. The company's current troubles are hardly proof.


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