Toyota and the Myth of Quality

Two myths have surrounded Toyota’s rise to dominance in the global auto industry:

(1) Toyota is about quality for the customer, and (2) Toyota’s quality and productivity are forged on respect for its workforce.

So strong are these myths that they have a halo effect. Pundits view Toyota’s recent acceleration problems as part of the myths rather than disproving them. Despite the extent of the problems and a cover-up that hid them for years, they’re seen as a slip in core values, caused by growing too quickly. James Womack, the MIT professor who has been the leading academic cheerleader for the Toyota Production System in the U.S., says, “When your whole deal was quality, every mistake is a big deal.”

The Toyota Production System, also known as “lean production,” has been used as the model and the hammer to destroy union conditions in every sort of workplace. For years the quality gurus and Toyota promoters have been playing a shell game with the notion of quality. They would like you to think that quality is about producing a better, safer car for you.

But that is not how “quality” is defined in the Toyota Production System. Quality was never about catching design problems. Quality was never about improving the car. Quality in the Toyota system is defined as “adherence to specifications.” It is about “reducing the variation” in the process of production—that is, you, the worker, must do things exactly the way you are told, down to “grab unit with the right hand, twist cap with the left.”

Quality at Toyota, and at any other company that prides itself on lean production, is about assuring tighter control of a top-down decision-making operation. The only role for the lower levels is to make suggestions for the higher-ups to use as they see fit, and to find ways of accomplishing the same production with fewer workers and less cost.

The much ballyhooed opportunity to “stop the line for quality”—supposedly a new worker right under Toyota’s system—never happens because a worker discovers a design problem. It is to be used only if the worker discovers that a task has not been done as specified on the detailed, programmed work sheets.

Cover-ups are not unique to Toyota. An engineering mistake followed by a cover-up can and does happen in any kind of top-down organization. Remember the exploding gas tanks of the Ford Pinto.

Of course, the acceleration problem, so much in the news, is a design problem. It couldn't be discovered, let alone dealt with, in the production process. To catch such a flaw would require processing and analyzing huge amounts of data. It would mean that engineers and analysts had some freedom to follow their own hunches.

But the culture of the Toyota Production System probably intensified the problem and its cover-up in several ways. Cover-up is the natural mode for people loyal to an organization. When at one point Toyota convinced regulators to just recall the floor mats, not the car, internal reports celebrated the savings achieved. No serious engineer concerned with safety (even believing that floor mats were likely to be the problem) would have settled without recalling the cars, to make sure the floor mats were properly installed if nothing else.

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The Toyota way rewards intense company loyalty and punishes and drives out those who challenge authority. The weakness of unions within Toyota removes an important support for potential whistleblowers. And Toyota’s political power has shielded it from external regulatory agencies not only in Japan but in the U.S., where it has carefully distributed its plants across several states in order to gain political defenders in Washington in addition to its large and effective lobby.

Toyota uses lean production principles to push its engineers and designers for ever-greater productivity, just as it pushes its production workforce. The results are stunning productivity gains. The costs of the system are harder to measure. There are the mistakes, the cover-ups, and the toll on human beings. In Labor Notes’ critique of the system, Working Smart, we called it “management-by-stress” because the interlocking aspects of the system maintained constant pressure on employees without constant supervisor intervention, as the way of forcing ever-increasing productivity.


Supposedly what Japanese workers got for submitting themselves to this grueling system was guaranteed lifetime employment—company loyalty returned to its workers. Much of this promise was always fictional. Workers who are injured or worn out are forced out. “Sudden death from overwork” is common enough to earn its own term, karōshi. Toyota workers in Japan who make it to senior years are forced to work for a contractor at lower wages.

But now Toyota does not feel it necessary even to maintain the fiction.

Toyota is closing its NUMMI plant in Fremont, California, on March 31, throwing 4,500 workers into a labor market with 12 percent unemployment. Toyota was not forced to close NUMMI because it was desperate for cash, because the plant was failing or the product was failing, or because the workforce was no good. Its unionized workforce labored at rates comparable to or cheaper than non-union Toyota workers in Kentucky, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Indiana, and West Virginia. The company could easily have shifted more production of its Corolla sedans to the California plant or scheduled it for new hybrids coming on line.

Toyota closed the plant because it was finished with the experiment of having a unionized workforce in the U.S. Despite all the claims about partnership, it preferred to manage without the United Auto Workers. And so all the notions of respect for and commitment to its workers were discarded along with the workers at the plant. Of course, lifetime employment was never actually in the contract, and Toyota is hiding behind the claim that, though the plant produces Toyotas and is run by Toyota, it is technically a separate corporation (from when NUMMI was a joint venture with GM).

The United Auto Workers International, after years of helping to spread the gospel of the Toyota Production System throughout the Big 3, barely put up resistance. It quickly ended the local union’s fight against the plant closing, in exchange for severance pay averaging about $55,000 per worker. In return, the union agreed to a gag order silencing UAW local and international leaders from criticizing Toyota or the deal.

For more on management-by-stress, see Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering. On NUMMI’s closing see a white paper prepared for the Toyota NUMMI Blue Ribbon Commission, appointed by the California State Treasurer, and the statement of UAW Local 2244 President Sergio Santos.

Mike Parker, an industrial electrician with many years in the auto industry, is co-author with Jane Slaughter of Working Smart and other books on labor-management participation and lean production.


rmichaels (not verified) | 03/12/11

Hi Mike

No matter what they say Toyota is still the biggest manufacturer in the world.

sarahmark07 (not verified) | 11/14/10

The topic which you chosen for discussion is really very good....Thanks.