The egalitarian environment made assimilating easy, but he notes it was also a high-stress workplace, because Toyota pushes relentlessly to eliminate wasted steps and improve. "Even when things are good, we're constantly looking for a better way," he said.
It may have been at one of those Friday night gatherings when Cho made a point that stuck with James.
"He said, culturally, things are different in the United States than they are in Japan, so we need American leaders to be able to help us to take full advantage of those of those cultural differences."
The long-term plan, he said, was to localize management. And diversity would be part of that.
James, who is Black, recalled in a phone call with me last week that at one point, he was the "sole diverse executive" in manufacturing. By the time he retired three years ago, Toyota had three women and two other African Americans as presidents — plus high-fliers in Toyota's North American administration, such as Chris Reynolds, whose titles now include chief administrative officer for manufacturing and corporate resources.
I can remember in the late '90s when Toyota flew TV personality Tavis Smiley to Cincinnati for the automaker's annual Opportunity Exchange event. That's when it invites minority business enterprises and its established Tier 1 and 2 suppliers to see whether they can do some business together. It was a way to identify potential suppliers or service providers owned by women or non-white people and work them into the auto industry.
"It's a very effective way of doing business, and I've got to also say it's a pretty effective way of trying to address some of the gaps that we have in our society today," James said.
It may have been through that program that Piston Automotive came to do business with Toyota.
Former Detroit Piston Vinnie Johnson started the company after his pro-basketball playing days were over, and James met Johnson when Piston was preparing to assemble brake modules for the Georgetown complex.
These days, Piston hardly looks like a startup that needs a hand. It booked almost $3 billion in revenue last year. And its board — including James as of last week — has four Black and three white members (all men) with impressive resumes, including Joe Laymon, the former head of Ford Motor Co. human resources, and Jeff Williams, a vice president at Johnson Controls.
James, former executive champion of diversity at Toyota, is proud of the automaker's ongoing programs, but he admits being a little disappointed that they are still needed.
"I always felt that, first, you set these targets and have people go out and start doing the work," he said. "But after a while, folks will start seeing the benefit of it, and you wouldn't need to necessarily keep pushing to make it happen."
In the wake of the killings of George Floyd and others, James said he appreciates seeing companies and individuals step up to make contributions or provide public help.
But he also would encourage every organization to "step back and take a look inside."
Most people and organizations don't intend to be racist, he said, but they might contribute to injustice all the same.
For individuals and for institutions, their practices "have to be thought through, and they have to be intentional," he said, "because they don't accidentally fix themselves."