Obituary: Eiji Toyoda

Born: 12 September, 1913, near Nagoya, Japan, Died: 17 September, 2013, in Toyota City, Japan, aged 100.

Architect of Toyotas globally influential method of lean manufacturing. Picture: AP

Eiji Toyoda, who as a member of Toyota Motor’s founding family and an architect of its “lean manufacturing” method helped turn the car maker into a global powerhouse and changed the face of modern manufacturing, died this week in Toyota City, Japan, where the company has its headquarters. He was 100.

Toyoda, a nephew of the Toyota Group founder, Sakichi Toyoda, was president of Toyota from 1967 to 1982 and continued as chairman and then as adviser until his death.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

In almost six decades with the company he helped transform a tiny spin-off of a textile loom maker into the world’s biggest car maker.

Early on he helped put Toyota at the forefront of a wave of automobile production in Japan, pushing it to bolster its lineup, first by adding compact vehicles and sports cars in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, he initiated the development of luxury models to compete with the likes of Mercedes-Benz and BMW, culminating with the Lexus brand in 1989.

Toyoda also pushed Toyota’s expansion overseas, helping to establish the company’s joint factory with General Motors in Fremont, California. The plant, known as Nummi, introduced Japanese lean-production methods to the United States as part of a migration of Japanese car manufacturing to American soil.

The company’s manufacturing efficiencies have helped maintain Toyota’s status as one of the top car manufacturers and employers in the world.

Nummi closed in 2010. It is now the site of a factory for electric car trailblazer Tesla Motors.

In the early 1990s, it was Toyoda, known as a man of few words, who gave voice to a sense of crisis inside the company as Japan’s economic growth sputtered, arguing that Toyota needed to change the way it made cars if it hoped to survive in the 21st century.

His urgings prompted the development of its popular Prius gas-electric hybrid, the manufacturing expert Satoshi Hino wrote in the 2005 book Inside the Mind of Toyota.

Toyoda was born in 1913, near Nagoya in central Japan, the second son of Heikichi and Nao Toyoda. He spent much of his youth at his family’s textile mill and took an early interest in machines, he said in his 1988 autobiography, Toyota: Fifty Years in Motion.

He graduated from the University of Tokyo in 1936 with a mechanical engineering degree and joined his family’s loom business.

The following year, Kiichiro Toyoda, son of the founder, created Toyota Motor, taking the young Eiji Toyoda with him.

Assigned to a division devoted to resolving quality problems, Toyoda is said to have developed an uncanny ability to spot waste.

“Problems are rolling all around in front of your eyes,” Toyoda said of those days in Inside the Mind of Toyota. “Whether you pick them up and treat them as problems is a matter of habit. If you have the habit, then you can do whatever you have a mind to.”

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.

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.

Toyoda went on to oversee Toyota’s Motomachi plant, a huge undertaking that gave the car maker 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.

Even as he aggressively expanded production at Toyota, Toyoda applied 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 Production System, or 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 per cent of them are put to practical use. There is an almost tangible concern for improvement in the air at Toyota.”

The methods Toyoda nurtured have had global influence. Though Toyota long guarded its manufacturing techniques, the company came to recognise a broader interest in its model and has offered consulting services to manufacturers outside the automotive industry and to non-profit organisations.

Toyoda had three sons and a daughter with his wife, Kazuko. He is survived by Kanshiro, his eldest son.