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Quietly Excellent

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.)

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One Response to "Quietly Excellent"

  • Karthik Chandramouli
    5 July 2007 - 3:15 pm

    Ironically, the WSJ article is, itself, Toyota’s way of influencing public perceptions without being perceived as controlling or egotistical.

    Does anyone else wonder how the WSJ gets so many deeply insightful articles on Toyota every year? This is a good question for Norihiko Shirozou, and his fellow reporters, who have some great relationships with Toyota senior management in Japan.

    It’s nice to have a pipeline to float trial balloons and shape public discourse without being overtly manipulative.

    Toyota definitely strives to remain humble, but they do not mind awards as much as you may think. They just go after “informal” awards, and collect them as political capital.

    For example, they have gone out of their way to cultivate a strong image on supplier diversity, even though the dollars they spend pale in comparison to other companies in their industry.

    Sometimes perception is stronger than reality…

    Toyota has become politically savvy, and understands how to turn public accolades into a reserve of goodwill that buffer against protectionist backlash.

    That, combined with a great relationship at the WSJ, allows them to control their perception in the public media.

    And if that doesn’t work, opening a plant in your state will certainly guarantee that the Senators and Representatives will fight for you in the back rooms of Washington, DC.