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Eiji Toyoda, Toyota Chief and Industrial Pioneer, Dies at 100

| September 17, 2013
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Toyota President and Chairman Eiji Toyota at the opening of the Toyota company museum in 1989. (Getty Images/AFP)

Toyoda pictured at the opening of the Toyota company museum in 1989. (Getty Images/AFP)

If you’re of a certain age — a Boomer, for instance — you can imagine a world without Toyota. The cars and trucks you drove came from Detroit companies, mostly, with a smattering of strays and imports born in exotic locations like Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Wolfsburg, West Germany. But if you came of age a little later — say you passed your driver’s license test in 1980 or later — it’s impossible to imagine a world without Toyota.

If you haven’t guessed it from the crowd of Toyotas on highways throughout the Bay Area and California Toyota is No. 1 in car sales in the state. You might not call the Prius, Camry, RAV4, Corolla, Sienna, Matrix, Yaris, Echo or various Lexus nameplates iconic, but they are everywhere.

The industrial pioneer who made them ubiquitous, former Toyota President and Chairman Eiji Toyota, died today in Japan. He was 100. He had one more local claim to attention: He was the force behind Toyota’s 1984 decision to partner with General Motors in New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. in Fremont, a venture meant to revive GM’s moribund assembly plant. It was Toyota’s first manufacturing facility in the United States.

A few snippets from some of the Toyoda obituaries published elsewhere today:

Los Angeles Times: Eiji Toyoda, car family scion who developed Corolla and Lexus, dies at 100

Born Sept. 12, 1913, in Nagoya City, Toyoda graduated from the University of Tokyo with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1936 and joined Toyoda Automatic Loom Works Ltd. that same year. About a year later he moved to the company’s newly established automotive subsidiary.

He quickly became enamored with the process of manufacturing automobiles, diving into factory operations and supervising activities on the shop floor.

“From my childhood, machines and business were always there right in front of me. I probably developed an understanding of both.”

Having grown up at the textile mill built by his father, Heichachi Toyoda, and uncle Sakichi Toyoda, Eiji Toyoda loved machines.

“So from my childhood, machines and business were always there right in front of me,” he said in a Time magazine interview in 1999. “I probably developed an understanding of both.”

He rose in the executive ranks, becoming a Toyota director by 1945. But that wasn’t much of a promotion because most of the company’s operations had been put on hold by World War II, picking back up again by 1950.

That was when Toyoda toured a Ford factory plant in Dearborn, Mich., an experience that was at the root of many of the ideas he employed at Toyota to create the company’s efficient, low-defect manufacturing processes.

“We were producing 40 cars a day,” he said in the Time interview. “Ford was making 8,000 units, a 200-times difference. The gap was enormous.”

Toyoda, with the advice of production specialist Taiichi Ohno, changed Toyota’s manufacturing approach. They focused on making cars in small batches, receiving just enough parts at the factory to complete a production run efficiently.

New York Times: Eiji Toyoda, Promoter of ‘Toyota Way,’ Dies at 100

In 1950 he set out on what would turn out to be a pivotal three-month tour to survey Ford’s Rouge plant in Detroit, then the largest and most efficient factory in the world. Before the war, the military government prevented Toyota from building passenger cars, compelling it to make trucks for Japan’s war effort instead.

By 1950, Toyota had produced just 2,685 automobiles, compared with the 7,000 vehicles the Rouge plant was rolling out in a single day, according to “The Machine That Changed the World,” a 1990 study by James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones and Daniel Roos.

Mr. Toyoda was unfazed, writing back to headquarters that he “thought there were some possibilities to improve the production system.” He brought back a thick booklet that outlined some of Ford’s quality-control methods; the company translated it into Japanese, changing “Ford” to “Toyota” in all references.

Mr. Toyoda went on to oversee Toyota’s Motomachi plant, a huge undertaking that gave the automaker the capacity to produce 5,000 passenger vehicles a month at a time when all of Japan produced about 7,000 vehicles a month. The plant, completed in 1959, was soon running at full capacity and gave Toyota a decisive lead over its domestic rival Nissan and the confidence to turn its eyes overseas.

“One of the features of the Japanese workers is that they use their brains as well as their hands.”

Even as he aggressively expanded production at Toyota, Mr. Toyoda implemented a manufacturing culture based on concepts like “kaizen,” a commitment to continuous improvements suggested by the workers themselves, and just-in-time production, a tireless effort to eliminate waste. Those ideas became a corporate philosophy known as the “Toyota Way.”

“One of the features of the Japanese workers is that they use their brains as well as their hands,” he said in an interview with the author Masaaki Imai for the 1986 book “Kaizen.” “Our workers provide 1.5 million suggestions a year, and 95 percent of them are put to practical use. There is an almost tangible concern for improvement in the air at Toyota.”

Wall Street Journal Japan: Eiji Toyoda, Japan Auto Industry Visionary, Dies at 100

After a failed earlier attempt to crack the U.S. market, Toyota succeeded with its 1968 Corolla model the year after Mr. Toyoda took over as president.

To avoid an escalation of trade friction between the U.S. and Japan in the 1980s, he was also responsible for pushing ahead with a plan to launch a joint production venture with General Motors Corp. called New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. in California. It was Toyota’s first production base in the U.S.

Among his other noted business decisions was the birth of Lexus, which he set into motion the year before becoming chairman and six years before the first luxury Toyota model debuted to rave reviews in 1989.

He stepped down as chairman in 1992 and served as honorary chairman until 1999, when he assumed the ceremonial post of honorary adviser until his death.

Among his many honorary titles outside of the company, he was awarded the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun in 1990, one of Japan’s highest honors. He was the second Japanese inductee into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1994 following Honda Motor Co.’s founder Soichiro Honda.

A cousin of the auto maker’s founder Kiichiro Toyoda, he helped the elder Toyoda build the company’s first commercial plant on the site of a red pine grove in town of Koromo, later renamed Toyota City.

Mr. Toyoda is survived by his three sons – Kanshiro, chairman of Toyota affiliated auto parts maker Aisin Seiki Co., Tetsuro – chairman of another affiliated parts maker Toyota Industries Corp. – and Shuhei, a former head of Toyota’s European operations, who currently serves as president of affiliated parts maker Toyota Boshoku Corp.

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Category: Economy, Tech, Transportation

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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