Tatsuro Toyoda died over the holidays in Toyota City.
He led the company as president in the 1990s, but many of us will remember him especially for his role at Toyota's joint venture with General Motors, NUMMI, where he led the launch of the most important factory of a generation.
Without NUMMI and its lessons, I doubt whether the Detroit 3 would have even survived until the Great Recession, when two of the three filed for bankruptcy.
I met Tatsuro upon joining Toyota in 1983. He was head of what was called the "Fremont Project Office." This was the team that had just begun working on the project to reopen the old GM Fremont, Calif., plant (now the home of Tesla) to produce a variant of the Corolla, rebadged as the Chevrolet Nova. Tatsuro was polite, telling me of his time studying under Dr. W. Edwards Deming at New York University, and animated in relating stories of driving across the U.S. in a rented Chevy as a young man.
A clipping from a Fremont newspaper shows Tatsuro preaching his key message just a few days before NUMMI produced its first car in early December 1984. Of NUMMI's many lessons, none were more important than to show that a new type of working relationship between labor and management was possible. More than possible — necessary.
In the book Smarter Faster Better, author Charles Duhigg tells of Tatsuro inspiring NUMMI's grizzled union work force with the message that it was OK to admit you've got a problem. More than OK, it was requested. NUMMI's, as were all of Toyota's famous assembly lines, was characterized by every worker being empowered to notify whenever they struggled or encountered a problem.
Whenever a worker spotted a problem, he or she would send a signal by pulling on an overhanging rope — an SOS. Help would come immediately, the problem would be contained and corrective action taken. If the problem couldn't be solved immediately, the line would stop. Before long, the entire plant would shut down. That's a big deal. Not unexpectedly, NUMMI's union workers — having worked long years under a GM regime that explicitly did NOT ask for their input — needed some convincing that it really was OK to pull the rope. Tatsuro's words and actions were instrumental in winning their trust.