Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Toyota, Toyoda, and the United States Congress: Japan isn't America

"Toyoda in Washington: A clash of cultures?
CNN (February 24, 2010)

"Akio Toyoda's appearance before U.S. legislators on Wednesday represents not just a fact-finding mission by committee members and a public relations move by Toyota, but a clash of cultures that in many ways created the recall controversy.

" 'They turned a rather ordinary recall into a brand-threatening crisis,' said Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus in Tokyo.

"Indeed, a key reason why Toyoda is in the hot seat is because the company leadership responded in a very Japanese fashion, Japan watchers say.

" 'Their decision-making process was painfully slow, but the international media and concerned customers don't want to wait so long for answers,' Kingston said. 'Anytime the public hears "brake" and "problem" in the same sentence, they want quick answers.'..."

Not Good Times for Toyota

I don't have enough facts about the mess that the Toyota automotive company is in to have an opinion. Apart from observing that they've got a major problem on their hands.

This is one of the reasons that I've never regretted not being a high-powered executive. The pay and perks are nice: but they're supposed to compensate people for making good decisions - and seeing that everybody, all the way down the ladder, does their job. When something goes wrong, people at the top tend to be in Akio Toyoda's position: fielding a whole lot of questions.

Even the questions that make sense may be hard to answer.

Toyota is big, and I don't know how much reliable information Mr. Toyoda has been able to collect. As so often happens, the first problem - what look like a failure maintain quality control - was bad, but probably manageable. Then - apparently - somehow, a decision was made to achieve a short-term goal and the expense of a long-term one.

Sure, it looks like someone in Toyota saved the company a bundle, by cutting corners on an equipment recall. Problem is, Toyota will probably spend many times that sum in lost sales and efforts to rebuild its reputation.

I'm no business expert: but that doesn't seem like a smart decision.

Everybody Makes Decisions: But Not the Same Way

The CNN article focuses on cultural differences. Short version: Japan isn't America; and America isn't Japan.

I'll admit to a bias. I am glad that Japan isn't just like America. And that America isn't a copy of Japan. I'm an American. This country isn't perfect, but I like it here. I think we've got a lot to offer the world. So does Japan.

Japan and America have, I think, a great deal in common. We're both active economically, intellectually and technologically. Taking just one example: we're both doing pretty well when it comes to developing robots. But we're not doing it the same way. (November 4, 2009)

People everywhere make decisions. What's different, for individuals and cultures, is why and how we make decisions.

The CNN article gives this insight into what's been happening in Toyota. Companies in Japan don't make decisions the way that their counterparts in America do:

"...Toyoda's long silence as the company deliberated what to do is a hallmark of the Japanese culture of consensus building.

" 'The decision-making process is really the planning process in Japan -- you don't see a lot of rapid response to a strategic issue,' said Michael Alan Hamlin, president of Team Asia, which provides communications advice to multinational companies...."

That was Then, This is Now: Americans and Time

I've gotten the impression that Americans have earned a reputation for being - abrupt. Hurried. An example:

"...Americans are known to have a tough time with the concept of 'long term.' I once lived in Europe. Before leaving the United States, I was listening to an American newscast that talked about a company's future 'long term.' The news story then went on to say that, by long term, it meant the company's performance over the next five quarters - barely more than a year! Several months later, while in Europe, I was introduced to some people by my Dutch colleagues. While doing the introduction, they explained that I was in the country 'tijdelijk' - meaning temporarily. I was scheduled to stay for three years. I thought back to the American newscast and wondered how they would take that comment from my Dutch acquaintances...."
("What's Your Definition of Long Term?" p. 28, "Start Your Own Home Business ... In No Time" Carol Anne Carroll, Que Publishing, Indianapolis, Indiana (2005))
(previously quoted in "Change, American Culture, Trilobites, Humanity's History, and the Big Picture" (September 26, 2009))

Here in America, for a tech company, their part of the industry might not be around in five years.

Japan, and quite a few other countries, handles time differently.

Respect, Japan, and the American Press

As I recall, someone connected with American journalism summarized his professional philosophy as: "If it's big, attack it."

CNN's article put it this way:

"...'There is a huge difference in how Japanese media cover companies,' said [Team Asia (provider of communications advice to multinational companies) president Michael Alan] Hamlin, who lived in Japan for a decade. 'They are careful not to upset or annoy business leaders too much, because they don't want their access to information or press conferences blocked because of negative reporting.

" 'In the West, you take Microsoft, Google or GM -- once they are big, successful companies, they are targets (of aggressive media),' he said. 'That's the trade-off for visibility and success.'..."

"Look Me In the Eye!"

One of the more valuable bits of information I took away from teacher training, decades back now, were about dealing with students from different cultures.

Westerners - Euro-Americans, anyway - look authorities in the eye. Or should, if they expect to be believed. Failure to do so can be seen as a sign of weakness - and probably an indication that the person is trying to hide something.

Not everybody grows up that way. In some cultures, looking an authority straight in the eye while being addressed is a challenge to that authority. Or so I was told.

Back to the CNN article:

"...'Japanese when in an apology mode -- especially before an authority like the U.S. Congress -- will be very humble. That means, you don't necessarily look people in the eye,' said Deborah Hayden, Tokyo managing partner of Kreab & Gavin Anderson Worldwide, a communications consultancy. 'From a Western perspective, that can be mistaken as weakness or perhaps trying to hide something.'

"Also, Japanese language tends to be indirect -- whereas before the committee members are likely to pepper him with direct questions and 'be a bit of political theater,' Hamlin added...."

No matter what happens, the next few months will be - interesting - for Toyota. I hope someone has told members of Congress that Japan isn't America.

Related posts, about Toyota:


Brigid said...


Oh, and you may want to fix this: "Apart from observing that They've"

Brigid said...

(There are a few other typos. Might want to reread. This is a long post!)

Brian, aka Nanoc, aka Norski said...


As you said, "wow." This is not a good time to be Aiko Toyoda.

I corrected that capitalization typo you pointed out, but didn't find the others. Maybe another time. Thanks!

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