There’s a good article in today’s Wall Street Journal titled the "Face of Toyota" Steps Up at a Critical Time, which discusses how Toyota’s Jim Press is working to manage the company’s reputation. Although it has created tens of thousands of jobs in the United States, the company is worried about a backlash.
Toyota officials are increasingly concerned that protectionist sentiment might surface in the U.S. just as the company becomes even more dependent on North America. "As we become bigger, we are a bigger target," Mr. Press said in an interview earlier this year.
Mr. Press is probably the right man for the job of managing that reputation. One brief story tells you what kind of person he is, and in effect what type of manager and leader a company like Toyota embraces.
At a ground-breaking ceremony this year, a woman who had sold Toyota Motor Corp. a chunk of land for an assembly plant near Tupelo, Miss., implored Jim Press to keep it free of industrial pollution. The Japanese auto giant’s North American chief hunched over, listening intently and then fished a business card from his wallet. "If there’s something you see that doesn’t seem right, you tell me," he said, handing her the card. Then, with the conversation winding down, Mr. Press discovered that his new acquaintance was in the market for a car. He immediately jotted down her name, saying, "We will be in touch with you." It’s that combination of diplomacy and salesmanship that has Mr. Press on the brink of becoming the first person from outside of Japan to be elected to Toyota’s board.
However the last couple sentences of the article also say something about Toyota.
Late last year in a New York conference room, Mr. Press quietly listened to a pitch from Japanese advertising agency Dentsu Inc. for a campaign that used Toyota’s growing American work force as a way to deflect potential criticism over the company’s strength in the U.S. Then he politely sent the Dentsu team back to the drawing board. "I really appreciate your efforts," he said. But "isn’t diversity something you don’t tout publicly but something you just carry out quietly inside the company?"
Excellence, be it in the form of diversity, efficiency, profitability, or respect for people, does not need to be promoted. Quiet excellence can be very powerful, both to the people inside an organization and to customers and shareholders outside. Toyota does not try to win awards as they believe the effort involved to apply for an award is also waste. Instead of trying to win a Shingo Prize, they openly teach their methods to others.
Quiet excellence gives a sense of being deeply real and fundamentally true. Because it usually is.
(Update: Mark over at the Lean Blog also has an analysis of this article.)