As we’ve watched the Toyota recall story unfold – one painful, awkward chapter after another – we can only hope that the company has a really good EAP. In all the talk about the crisis that the company is going through, there is a lot of emphasis on the share price and the damage to the brand, but our thoughts go out to the rank and file employees who have gone from heroes to villains in one fell swoop. One day, the workers enjoyed the pride of association with one of the world’s most successful and respected firms, noted for impeccable quality and reliability; and then, seemingly the next day, their company is besieged with international recriminations, negative headlines, and plummeting sales. In a terrible economy, the specter of job loss must suddenly loom large.
After every major corporate PR crisis, the literature is rife with analyses and dissections of what went wrong on a management level. Just one time, we’d like to hear more about the perspective and impact on the worker level. At the height of the AIG scandals, we recall the trapped-in-the-headlights look of one employee caught by the media as he was leaving the building one day. “I am not AIG,” said the poor fellow. “I just work here.”
HR’s Role in Toyota’s Crisis
Consultant and HR guru Dr. John Sullivan has produced an interesting “think piece” with the provocative title How HR Caused Toyota to Crash, in which he challenges readers to consider whether Toyota’s current predicament is a result of poorly designed practices and weak execution on the part of the human resource department. He says that:

“In any situation where employees fail to perform as expected, investigators must determine if the human error could have been caused by factors beyond the employee’s control. Such external factors might include actions by senior management, lack of adequate information or job training, faulty inputs to the process, or rewards that incent actions not in line with documented goals.
If you believe in accountability, you have to accept that human errors that lead to corporate catastrophes could be the result of faulty HR processes, most notably those related to acquiring, developing, motivating, and managing labor.”

His piece is worth your time and don’t skip the comments, which also make for a good read. Some commenters accept that HR is a contributor to the problem, but balk at being the cause; other commenters find the premise silly, viewing the problem as the exclusive purview of PR, the quality team, the engineers, or the folks at the top; still others note that if HR wants a seat at the management table, they must also assume some share of responsibility for the company’s problems.
We fall in the “contributed but not caused” camp on this issue, but think it is a topic well worth exploring – particularly given how the Toyota culture has served as a benchmark and a template for so many best practices over the last few decades: lean manufacturing, just-in-time processes, continuous improvement, quality, and mentoring – to name but a few. And Dr. Sullivan’s premise is all the more valid when you examine the heightened role that HR played in the company. Jeffrey K. Liker and Michael Hoseus examine the issue of Human Resource Development and the Toyota Culture in a 2008 article that explored the role of HR in a lean enterprise in the light of an HR reorganization after a crisis of trust at it Georgetown, KY plant.
Toyota’s unique culture
Time features an excellent article that looks at the role that Toyota’s much ballyhooed corporate culture may have played in “the epic breakdown.”

“One organizing philosophy behind TPS is popularly ascribed to a concept called kaizen — Japanese for “continuous improvement.” In practice, it’s the idea of empowering those people closest to a work process so they can participate in designing and improving it, rather than, say, spending every shift merely whacking four bolts to secure the front seat as each car moves down the line. Continuous improvement constantly squeezes excess labor and material out of the manufacturing process: people and parts meet at the optimal moment. Kaizen is also about spreading what you’ve learned throughout the system. And then repeating it.
…Sakichi Toyoda developed another concept, jidoka, or “automation with a human touch.” Think of it as built-in stress detection. At Toyota, that means work stops whenever and wherever a problem occurs. (Any employee can pull a cord to shut down the line if there is a problem.)
…That was the idea. But the fact that Toyota has produced so many imperfect cars is evidence that its system developed faults.”

The authors note that it was an enormous challenge to export the corporate culture over the company’s rapid growth, which encompassed long distances and many cultures. In addition, as the company grew, the empowerment of the individual worker diminished. Steven Spear of MIT, author of Chasing the Rabbit: How Market Leaders Outdistance the Competition noted:

“The big deal is this question, Does an organization know how to hear and respond to weak signals, which are the problems, or does it have to hear strong signals? You have to listen to weak signals. By the time you get to strong signals, it’s too late.”

These articles all provide food for thought. We’ll no doubt be reading more analyses like these over the next several years, and we think it is worth putting the role of HR and the corporate culture under the microscope in any of these dissections.
Meanwhile, all you Toyota employees – our thoughts are with you. If the stress is getting you down, call your EAP!

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