Saturday, 9 June 2007


All I can say is – blame it on Toyota.

Yes, blame it on that carmaker of carmakers, the company from a very small corner of the world that is now poised to take over as the world’s largest auto manufacturer for the first time since Henry Ford starting making cars.

If not for Toyota’s relentless pursuit of manufacturing excellence, if not for its single-minded drive for efficiency and zero waste, if not for its ability to sell cars that seem to run forever – then many companies today would not be in such a bind.

Yes, just as kids in the 90’s used to sing “I want to be like Mike,” so have companies been trying to emulate Toyota’s cutting-edge manufacturing systems for at least the last couple of decades, if not longer.

Kanban, Just-In-Time, Zero Defects, Quality Circles – these are just some of the concepts pioneered by the carmaker that have been zealously adopted not only by its competitors, but also from admirers in industries as diverse as consumer goods, utilities and financial services. Just as kids wanted to be “like Mike,” companies from all over the globe aimed to be “like Taichii” (Ohno, Toyota’s legendary leader during its period of rapid growth).

“Being Toyota” has taken on a strangely cult-like following in the corporate world. CEOs and corporate executives have taken to downsizing and cost cutting as young girls have to dieting and looking like their stick-figure supermodel idols. Slim is in -- as they say -- in corporate USA. And as well in many places beyond.

So what can be wrong with this? Is not a cost-conscious company also better placed to compete in its marketplace?

The problem with idols is that they never tell you why they do certain things. And for those of us who emulate them at every turn, sometimes we are unaware of the reason for what it is we are trying to copy.

Take supermodels, for example. What could be the reason why they take only lettuce leaves for lunch? Clearly not because they like to eat only lettuce leaves. And possibly not even just to look good for their friends and acquaintances. Most likely it is to land that high paying modeling contract in New York, Milan or London, for which they starve themselves almost to near-death.

Yet most young girls who wish to copy their waif-like physiques do so not necessarily for the huge financial rewards. They actually believe it makes them look good and feel accepted. They are taking the pain, without necessarily the gain that their idols are rewarded with. It’s like having no cake, and not eating it too!

Toyota’s main competitive advantage is not necessarily its operational excellence alone. Arguably, it is not even its operational excellence at all. Of course, being the very clever and consensus building Japanese company that they are, they wish to ruffle no feathers by telling everyone that they are heading for a one-way road to disaster if they blindly followed what Toyota is doing.

As a result, a management cult has been born, whose only mantra is an all-out war to re-engineer, downsize and cut costs. Every organisation in existence today has probably some kind of cost reduction exercise in place – whether it be regarding the way it makes product, sells it to its customer, or supports its business activities.
More on the subject next week.

Published by the Sun Star Daily, June 9, 2007 (

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