Book Review – Against All Odds: The Story of the Toyota Motor Corporation and the Family That Created It

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Post by Bill Bellows, Deputy Director, The Deming Institute.

Once upon a time, well before his name entered lean folklore, Taiichi Ohno graduated from industrial school and earned a position with Toyoda Spinning & Weaving as a supervisor. The year was 1933 and Ohno soon became well known for his mustache, added to further his image of authority with his direct reports, a large group of women.

Fast forward to 1974, when Ohno was “the man all visitors wanted to meet,” in spite of his pointed efforts to remind Toyota’s suppliers not to build warehouses to store excess production, but instead “to have only the equipment and workers needed to produce what was actually sold.” Such accounts of Ohno’s progress within Toyota and the company’s advancement in the world can be found in an extremely detailed book, authored by Yukiyasu Togo and William Wartman.

Against All Odds: The Story of the Toyota Motor Corporation and the Family That Created It was published in 1993, when Togo was chairman of Toyota Motor Sales, in the USA.   While his account suffers from the bias of a Toyota insider, Wartman is to be commended for guiding a book that delivers a rollercoaster account of Toyota, from Sakichi Toyoda’s birth in 1867 to the release of the first Lexus in 1989.

According to Togo, Toyota’s US sales were steadily, yet slowly increasing in the early 1970s, while at home in Japan a relentless focus on managing costs resulted in Toyota’s ability to consistently deliver profits.

Meanwhile, the US auto industry focused on production volume, rather than production efficiency, and continued to overlook the impact of Ohno’s maturing efforts to focus on efficiency. Ohno was following in the deep footsteps of Sakichi Toyoda, founder of both Toyota Weaving & Spinning and Toyota Motor Corporation, who maintained a relentless pursuit of lower costs, through ever-increasing production efficiency, in both organizations from their opening days.

Ohno entered auto production from the mills in 1943, after both companies were merged by their leading customer, the Japanese military. Upon arrival, he witnessed factories in full disarray, “controlled by inertia rather than reason.”

While Ohno pursued just-in-time production, Shoichiro Toyoda, son of Kiichiro, as well as chairman of Toyota from 1992-1999, focused on delivering quality cars with competitive prices. Of concern was the time being saved by moving products through development at lightning speed, only to face angry customers in the marketplace, when the best Toyota could offer was immediate repairs.

Guided by strong first impressions of Dr. Deming during his early lectures across Japan, Toyoda led Toyota’s Total Quality Control (TQC) efforts, with a commitment for Toyota to eventually win the Deming Prize.   According to author, Togo, Ohno “became a convert,” when he saw TQC as “fully compatible” with JIT.

Nonetheless, TQC efforts were openly resisted, leading to “a group of nervous quality-control managers surrounding Shoichiro” one day asking if they would be fired if the company did not win the Deming Prize. “If that happens, then I will be fired too,” Toyoda told them. None were fired and Toyota was awarded the Deming Prize in 1965, also against all odds. For those new to Dr. Deming’ theory of management and those with enough practitioners’ tales to fill a book, this account is a very relevant read.  The connection of Deming management to TQC and Toyota’s success is noteworthy.

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