Toyota Motor Corp., in many ways the quintessential Japanese corporation, owes at least some of its gleaming quality reputation to an American, the late W. Edwards Deming, who in the 1960s helped set Toyota on the path to what became known as Total Quality Management.
It is a debt Toyota readily acknowledges.
"I believe that we owe a great deal of thanks to America for our sense of the importance of quality and our acquisition of control methods," said Shoichiro Toyoda, honorary chairman of Toyota Motor Corp., whose father, Kiichiro Toyoda, founded the car company in 1937.
"After all, it was our initial failure in the American market and the teachings of Dr. Deming that taught us these key lessons," Shoichiro Toyoda, 82, said in a speech in Washington in September.
Deming, who died in 1993 at the age of 93, was an American statistician, time-and-motion expert and populist philosopher. He was revered in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s but largely ignored in the United States. Deming's name comes up in auto industry circles as an example of the expression, "a prophet without honor in his own country."
But today automakers around the world aspire to imitate Toyota's methods, which have a lot of Deming's ideas at the core.
Dave Power, founder of research and consulting firm J.D. Power and Associates, remembered in an interview that the first time he recalls hearing Deming's name was at the end of one of Power's first visits to Toyota in Japan.
At the time, Japanese autos were still known in the United States for poor quality, thanks in part to the hapless Toyopet Crown.
"As I was leaving for the airport, somebody asked me if I knew Dr. Deming or if I knew about the Deming award. ... I had never heard of him," said Power, 76.
In 1970, the Deming Prize Committee awarded the first Japan Quality Medal to Toyota for demonstrating "continuous improvement efforts toward quality and dependability of products." And Toyota had won the Deming Application Prize in 1965, for following Deming's "continuous improvement" philosophy.