Fortune 2/7/05 Full Speed Ahead, Toyota CEO Fujio Cho is driving the Japanese automaker to new heights and straight past the competition.
"There were cultural differences right from the beginning," he recalls. "We'd give somebody a sketch, figuring they'd get the idea. But workers were baffled. They kept asking us, 'Why do it this way?' I was completely unprepared for that. We hadn't been trained to think in terms of logical reasons."
Cho, meanwhile, is trying to apply what he learned on the factory floor to corporate management: He wants to shorten the chain of command, improve accountability, and speed up the decision-making process. Last year he slashed the number of Toyota directors from 58 to 27. He hopes to increase the number of non-Japanese directors, now only five. And he says he wants a management structure that is as instantly responsive as Toyota's production lines. "If there's a problem," Cho says, "I want to hear about it in an hour."
Cho is an affable and low-key manager who prefers to give credit to his predecessors and subordinates rather than steal attention for himself. He is also a nimble problem solver, quick to adapt to conditions at hand. Cho says he learned the value of flexibility during his nine-year stint as general manager of the Georgetown plant. The constant questioning from U.S. workers, he says, helped him see that many aspects of Toyota's production process had to be retooled for U.S. factories and could be improved on in Japan as well. He realized, he says, that "we did a lot of things without thinking, because we had been taught in a certain way by our predecessors, and it seemed to work, so we just did it." Toyota's expansion into the U.S., he argues, "rejuvenated the entire company, forcing everyone to make adjustments and abandon outdated ideas."
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