Toyota Veteran Rises to Corporate Office From Factory Floor

03/27/2015 23:451 commentViews: 3

TOYOTA CITY, Japan—When 15-year-old Mitsuru Kawai started working at Toyota Motor Corp. in 1963, he didn’t fathom his journey would take him from the factory floor to the corporate suite.

But 52 years later, Mr. Kawai is preparing to take the post of senior managing officer, the highest position ever held by a blue-collar worker in Toyota’s eight decades.

“When I joined, Toyota had two plants, producing just 300,000 vehicles a year. Last year it made 10 million vehicles. I got to witness that entire evolution,” the 67-year-old said Friday at Toyota’s Honsha plant in central Japan. “I’m one lucky man.”

Mr. Kawai’s promotion, announced earlier this month, underscores a growing concern at Toyota, the world’s best-selling auto maker, about a younger generation of employees familiar only with automated systems. Worries about quality control were exacerbated by a spate of safety recalls in recent years.

Mr. Kawai’s main task will be overseeing Toyota’s plants, positioned to utilize his experience in traditional manufacturing and the Toyota Production System, the term for the lean-manufacturing methods and philosophies that the company has developed over decades.

Mr. Kawai is one of the few people remaining at Toyota who had the chance to witness in person the works of Taiichi Ohno, the engineer who developed just-in-time delivery, which was partly inspired by the way people shopped at supermarkets he visited in the U.S. in 1956, Toyota said.

Implementing Mr. Ohno’s strategies at its plants allowed Toyota to develop reliable vehicles that could be sold affordably, helping it grow from a small Japanese car maker into a global powerhouse. The production system has been adopted by a wide range of companies beyond the auto sector, including hospitals and plane manufacturer Boeing Co.

Mr. Kawai was trained in forging at the Honsha plant, Toyota’s oldest factory, and in recent years has been passing on his skills and knowledge to younger workers and newer plants. When he started his career, line workers built much of each vehicle by hand.

But through the years, Toyota, like most other manufacturers, became mostly reliant on robots and machines capable of complicated maneuvers.

Mr. Kawai said he became concerned about the skills of factory workers about seven years ago, when he noticed that Japanese workers tasked with training peers at Toyota’s new plants in emerging markets may have lacked the requisite know-how.

“When you make something with your own hands, all the steps get ingrained into your head,” he said. “That’s why it’s necessary to learn to build with your hands. Because only then you can understand why problems are happening, whether they may be broken machines or defective products.”

To counter that concern, Mr. Kawai has been installing workshops within factories that take workers decades back in manufacturing technologies.

At one section of the Honsha plant, 11 workers are assembling vehicle components based on a manufacturing procedure from decades ago with minimal automation.

The workers learn how to retool machines and assemble components by hand instead of relying on robots. Reliance on manual operations means the line is 50% less efficient than it could be if certain procedures were automated, Toyota said.

But Mr. Kawai said that what appears inefficient is actually a necessity for Toyota to continue growing.

“Automation took place by numerating and standardizing a human’s manual skills,” he said. “But robots can’t teach robots how to do things in a better way. You need the human wisdom to make improvements.”

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