Out of Japan: Toyota teaches the British its fighting philosophy

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TOKYO - When I asked Hidenori Hamamoto, a 22-year-old employee of Toyota, why he had joined the company, he clearly thought it a nonsensical question. Why would any secondary-school graduate refuse a chance to work in Japan's biggest car firm with 40 per cent of the domestic market and awesome exporting power? 'I like cars, and enjoy making things,' he suggested politely.

When he started the basic training course four years ago, his salary was pounds 1,000 a month. He also received free housing, subsidised food and a range of company benefits. Having absorbed the renowned Toyota Production System - just-in-time manufacturing, kaizen continuous on-the-job improvements, the kanban system of instruction cards carrying information between each process and from the factory floor to suppliers and back - he was ready to start making cars. This was several months later, and already he was paid an extra pounds 250 per month.

Then came the Fighting Minds Process. Mr Hidenori started in the Tsutsumi factory in Toyota city, about three hours' train journey from Tokyo. The plant has 6,500 employees and produces 40,000 cars a month.

For junior employees who have finished the basic training of two to four months, there is further on-the-job training for special parts of the assembly line. The line moves a little slower than the factory norm, to make sure the apprentices get the work done properly. And to give their supervisors time to imbue them with the 'fighting minds' that will make them fully-fledged Toyota employees.

The idea is that workers who constantly strive to make their job more efficient, who look for any means possible to cut out wasted time and energy, will take more pride in what they do and feel more motivated. And motivated they will need to be, because in every other part of the plant, workers do jobs throughout the day at a speed marginally below panic level - their minds concentrated like someone hurrying to catch a train, stopping the toast from burning or winding up a telephone conversation when the other line is ringing.

Results count, and clearly up to now Toyota has got it right as its sales' successes demonstrate - much to the chagrin of both US and European carmakers, as well as its domestic competitors who think Toyota should ease up a little to give everyone else some breathing space.

In order to get around some of the overseas resistance to their manufacturing domination, Toyota, as Nissan did before it, is now starting to make cars in the UK, in a factory in Burnaston, Derbyshire, opened earlier this month. The question for the Toyota managers in Japan was whether the 'fighting minds' concept could be transferred to British workers.

So far 265 Britons have been trained in Toyota city for the Derbyshire plant - 84 in 1991 and 181 this year. 'Basically they had the same level of learning ability as Japanese workers,' said Shigeaki Okawa, a manager in the quality control division of the Tsutsumi factory who supervised the training of the British workers.

The training lasted from three to four weeks for ordinary workers, and for three months for engineers. 'Some were slow to learn, but we just kept working with them.' This is standard practice in Japan. New recruits are rarely fired because of lack of ability - it is their supervisor's job to bring them up to speed.

There were some difficulties - the most painful one being the difference in height between the Britons and their hosts. The training area was covered with 'Mind your head' signs in English, after the taller Britons continually ended the day with bruised foreheads from low overhead bars that their Japanese colleagues strolled under without a thought.

'Also the British needed to be told the reason why they were doing individual tasks all the time - it seems they come from a top- down philosophy, rather than the Toyota bottom-up feedback- from-workers approach,' said Mr Okawa. 'But we were surprised to find we had a lot more in common than we thought - there was a lot of 'after five' activity together.' He smiled at the memory of some Anglo-Saxon induced hangovers.

Toyota eventually plans to produce 200,000 cars a year in Derbyshire. Part of this will depend on trade frictions within the European Community. But part will also depend on whether the UK workers have developed the necessary 'fighting minds'. Mr Okawa was optimistic - in a quaintly patronising way: 'Given the quick learning abilities and skills of the UK workers, we couldn't understand why the UK did not keep its own car industry.'