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Toyota Can’t Get No Satisfaction

I could write pages about your profile of how Toyota works (“No Satisfaction,” Dec 2006/Jan 2007). I have read and heard a lot about Toyota, but it wasn’t until I read your article that I understood what it was all about. For me, a small line in the article summed up the key to its success: Only 10% of job applicants pass screening tests that include a team-building exercise. You cannot build a great company unless you have the right people to begin with. That’s one of the reasons the Big Three will never be able to catch Toyota.

Edward Knapton
Cottage Grove, Wisconsin

I could not agree more with Mr. Fishman about what differentiates Toyota from the typical U.S. company. The difference is the philosophical approach to business between the two. Everything about how Toyota operates, starting with the corporate vision and moving through hiring, orientation, training, culture, incentive and pay systems–everything it does–fosters and supports the concepts of kaizen, the Japanese word for “continuous improvement.” The philosophy is so ingrained in employees that it transcends the workday right into how employees think and act outside of the plant.


The typical approach for a U.S. firm is to bring in outside “experts” (like me, a consultant, speaker, trainer, and sometime writer on quality and excellence since 1990) to train a small percentage of people in how to “improve processes” and then let them take a “nibble at the edges” approach for a few years until either people lose interest or there’s a management change at the top.

The culture at most American companies is one of celebrating the individual (or maybe a small team) for a one-time improvement, rather than relentlessly focusing on getting better all the time. It’s too bad that more companies don’t have the guts to do what it takes to implement a culture of continuous improvement.

Michael P. Levy
Danville, Virginia


Thank you for your well-balanced article on Toyota. Charles Fishman is one of the few authors who can stand back and critique best-in-class companies. I am sending this article to the senior management in my organization.

Parampal Singh
Mumbai, India

Toyota’s “mind-set” is kicking everyone’s behind with quality that translates into massive profitability. I agree with your article: Lean Six Sigma projects alone won’t get you to Toyota quality, but a lean Six Sigma mind-set will.


Jay Arthur
Denver, Colorado

Great article. It’s good to read that continual improvement can be fun to do and that it doesn’t become boring. But if Western companies want kaizen, maybe they should start by helping change the educational system. I have never heard of a school that tries to improve the way it lectures. I do not know of a school that lets its employees and pupils take part in the improvement of how content is being taught. As long as people learn that they aren’t allowed to better their surroundings, they won’t be able to see improvement as an integral part of their lives.

Norman Dragt
Maastricht, Netherlands


Your article on Toyota’s constant improvement is one of the best I have read on this topic. We still do not get the change of thinking that’s necessary for this approach to work. I headed an early effort at this back in 1983 at Cummins Engine and was frustrated by our lack of real progress. As I struggled, I began to realize how fundamentally differently Komatsu (our customer and mentor on this) viewed work. I gave up my role internally and worked as a consultant with Kaizen Institute for many years. I worked with Chrysler and Ford and their suppliers. I could never get them off the “project” mentality even though I constantly emphasized the value in the change of thinking. There were too many MBAs enamored with “results” thinking.

The other shift in thinking is one from functional to systemic. As one Japanese executive told me on a walk through his world-class plant, “the real power is not in what you see (on the plant floor) but in that which is invisible.” He meant the totally integrated support system that allows for the totes to show up with the right stuff, that aligns suppliers to produce parts that do not have to be inspected or counted, that allows maintenance so all the robots and other equipment is always working when it should be, and the training that keeps people abreast of standards and skills. I retired several years ago, tired of pushing the noodle uphill. I hope your article touches some folks out there.

Tom Lane
Columbus, Indiana


Toyota deserves the accolades. These guys work incredibly hard. We can all learn from this model of kaizen. Both the previous and current Toyota VPs of quality are my clients. Often, after an evening meeting ending at 8 p.m., they would go back to their office. I have to admire their work ethic. Gambatte kudasai! Keep up the good work and don’t give up.

Andrew Lautz
Florence, Kentucky

Hip-Hop’s Champagne Wars

Many companies underestimate the amount of money the hip-hop culture can and will spend on items (“Bottled Up,” Dec 2006/Jan 2007). If you disrespect an entire demographic, then you should feel the financial consequences of that action. There is always another label or brand that will take your business.


Letitia S. Wright
Rancho Cucamonga, California

Beyond Sustainability

Feeding the Beast,” by John R. Ehrenfeld (Dec 2006/Jan 2007), really made an impact on me. On a recent trip to the mall with my student-driver daughter, it was an unnerving experience for her just to find a parking space as she battled aggressive and impolite drivers. When we entered the frenzy in Nordstrom–a store known for its outstanding customer service–all I could think was, Do women really need more shoes, more makeup, more purses, more scarves? There was an ad in The New York Times Magazine that says: “We recently heard of a woman who has 29 pairs of black shoes. That’s right. Only 29.” Sickening.

Kathe Stoepel
Chicago, Illinois


Email-Signature Silliness

Think about how stupid email signatures are (“Egregiously Legalistic Sig File of the Month–So Long, We Couldn’t Fit It All In,” Dec 2006/Jan 2007). You have to read through the message to find out that it’s not for you and that you never really should have read it.

Jered Benoit
Newport News, Virginia

The Limits of LEED

In “A Different Shade of Green” (Dec 2006/Jan 2007), you pose the question whether a building can be “green” without LEED certification. As a user of LEED, I acknowledge that it’s not perfect, but I remain confident that it’s the best instrument available. Since LEED’s inception, constant effort has gone into making it more meaningful and more usable. To the specific limitations noted in your article, your readers should know that members of the U.S. Green Building Council have undertaken a major effort to address regional differences in the rating systems, and to reduce the cost to certify multiple buildings of the same design.


Granted, there are additional fees associated with a LEED project, but these costs, such as Cornell’s $300,000, should be placed in context with the entire project budget and weighed against the experience of the design and construction team.

Building green is the owners’ choice, and generally within their zone of discretion. I am familiar with one registered project whose owners backed out to save money; as it turned out, the savings were less than what they spent for one (expensive) table for one conference room.

Sure, it’s possible for the exceptional building to be green without being LEED-certified. However, there is a rigor that comes with the process, not unlike the benefits that a university student going for a dissertation gets by registering and submitting work for review.


John Stivers
Grand Rapids, Michigan

As the associate in charge of the design and construction of Cornell University’s Alice Cook House, I would like to point out that it is incorrect, both economically and ecologically, to advocate that companies take similar measures to cut green construction costs. Though we agree that LEED is not yet a perfect system, we advised the client to pursue LEED certification for all phases for the benefit of third-party assurance. A representative of Cornell’s Environmental Compliance Office summed it up best by saying that if you don’t have a creditable third party ensuring your compliance and you have no environmental conviction, then don’t make a claim to sustainability.

David Riz
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Fast Fix

In “Twenty People, Four Notes” (February), we should have identified Robert Fripp’s band as King Crimson.

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