Akio Toyoda’s Testimony: Getting the Japanese to Admit a Mistake is Easier Said Than Done

Akio Toyoda’s testimony concerning the woes Toyota is having regarding its spontaneous acceleration makes me think of an incident in my own family business many years ago, as related by the field service man who experienced it.

In the 1960’s, we imported a Japanese vibratory hammer called the Uraga. It’s purpose was to drive piles by vibrating them into the ground.

Below: a Uraga unit at a California power plant.

It was basically a good unit, ahead of its time in many ways.  It inserted the drive motors inside of the eccentric weights which generated the vibrating force, a feature that I’ve not seen before or since.  It also sported a modular construction, which allowed new “layers” to be added to the hammer, increasing the vibrating force.  But that feature made the alignment of the bearings and the eccentrics even more critical than usual; improper alignment led to the rapid internal self-destruction of the hammer.

We were having this problem with one of the units, so we set our field service man to California.  He met his Japanese counterpart there.  It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on.  Admitting to the problem, however, was another story altogether.  The dialogue between the Vulcan and Uraga service personnel went something like this:

Vulcan: “This hammer does not work.”

Uraga: “Yes.”

Vulcan: “The eccentric bearing bores are out of alignment.”

Uraga: “Yes.”

Vulcan: “This is what is causing the problem.”

Uraga: “Yes.”

Vulcan: “This happened at the factory, therefore it is your fault.”

Uraga: “No.”

Our man found it very difficult for his Japanese counterpart to admit that the factory made this mistake.  But he wasn’t one to take no for an answer, so he persisted, and finally forced a conference call with the factory.  The factory provided a solution and things were better.

For us and the contractor, at least…for the Japanese service man, it was another matter altogether.  His superiors called him back and told him in no uncertain terms to never, ever put them on the spot like that again.  To make sure he got the message, he was reassigned to a remote place in South-east Asia which, as Vietnam veterans will attest, could be very miserable.

The key issue here, of course, is saving face.  Losing face is a disaster in the Far East and many other parts of the world.  Part of the Japanese obsession about consensus building–which delayed a solution to both this problem and Toyota’s–is linked to avoiding hanging shame around an individual or individuals in an organisation.  Having that happen can lead to suicide more easily there than here.  There was a time when this was true in Western civilisation, but Christianity showed that suicide is a sin.  Japan, for the most part, is a non-Christian culture, thus their idea is different.

The Japanese rise after World War II–even with the “lost decade” of the 1990’s–is one of the most remarkable developments in human history.  But it has come in a context of a culture that is very different from ours.  Whether our government will appreciate that will indicate how cosmopolitan our leadership really is.

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