Toyota wastes less time because of coronavirus, president reveals

Linda J. Dodson

TOKYO — One of Japan’s best-known business leaders has given frank insights into the benefits of working during the coronavirus pandemic, saying measures taken to fight the outbreak have sharply cut corporate bureaucracy and given him more time to talk to global peers.

Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor, told reporters during the carmaker’s annual earnings call this week how his company and his own work are being reshaped. Toyoda announced sharply lower annual profits — but also revealed more unexpected numbers about his own “self-restraint” mode as a result of the outbreak.

Remaining at Toyota’s main base in Aichi Prefecture in central Japan has allowed Toyoda to slash 80% of his travel time, 85% of direct human contacts and 30% of time spent on internal meetings, he said.

Toyoda also revealed that only half as many documents were being produced for those meetings.

“If [my corporate colleagues] meet with me, they will prepare documents, and those who are highly ranked will make others do that,” Toyoda said, explaining why so many inward-looking tasks could be slashed.

Those documents were usually “based on information being gathered a week or two ago. … Now, we teleconference without documents and discuss troubles and problems that are happening at that point,” Toyoda said.

Of the time saved in not churning out internal documents, he said, “I dearly wish it to be invested for the future.”

The disclosures from the top of Japan’s most valuable company shed a light on the country’s often bureaucratic corporate culture. They also suggest a hope that Toyota can transform itself further as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

Toyoda said the company’s elite employees “were not so happy” when he took over as president in 2009. Most of them “were on their own, not changing the way they work, in my observations,” Toyoda said.

He said attitudes toward him had softened as the company overcame various troubles under his management.

The president also said he now has easier access to his peers abroad using teleconferencing. “Even top executives would have five or 10 minutes of spare time,” he said, adding that he feels less impolite not paying personal visits to people but using telecommunications to “discuss only what we need to discuss.”

Toyoda, the great grandson of group founder Sakichi Toyoda, even said he is willing to reconsider a concept long held sacred at Toyota: genchi genbutsu shugi, which loosely translates as “real place, real thing.” It is used to stress the century-old company’s approach to making decisions based on a physical presence or experience of a location.

Toyoda conceded he had “not yet consolidated his thoughts” on this but committed to “revise the definition” of the genchi genbutsu shugi axiom. “It definitely does not mean you have to be at your partners’ locations and conduct meetings there,” he said.

However while he extolled the virtues of digital working, Toyoda also reiterated the importance of Toyota’s manufacturing. “We are going to protect something real, which is our factories,” he said. “No matter how much IT develops and teleworking proceeds, there are jobs that people are going to do.”

He also reiterated the long-standing corporate policy to maintain production capacity of 3 million cars in Japan, saying this would stay “come hell or high water,” as the pandemic reinforced the need to keep production capabilities, technologies and jobs at home. Toyota produced about 9 million cars worldwide last year.

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