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Eiji Toyoda: Remembering an Automotive Legend & His 100 Years of Impact

Eiji Toyoda: Remembering an Automotive Legend & His 100 Years of Impact

The death of Eiji Toyoda on September 17, 2013 made multiple headlines, which called him the “Creator of the Toyota Export Giant,” “Driver of Toyota’s Global Expansion,” “Car Family Scion Who Developed the Corolla and the Lexus.” The American business press never really understood his real achievement -- fostering the evolution of a different kind of organization, a competitive enterprise with a culture supportive of the people within it.

100 years ago when Eiji Toyoda was born, so was the mass production of automobiles: Henry Ford revealed his first real assembly line in 1913. Making a full circle 40 years later, Toyoda spent a month and a half in Dearborn, making a detailed investigation of how Ford’s immense Rouge River manufacturing complex operated. He went home and applied what he learned, but Toyota Motor Company was never a copy of Ford. In stark contrast to the adversarial relationship between worker and management that still lingers in corporations to this day, respect for people has been cultivated to a fine art at Toyota under his leadership.

Jeff Liker, one of our contributors here on Gray, has studied the company and its leaders for decades and continues to provide invaluable insights into the Toyota Way. He says:

Several years ago, I had an opportunity to meet Eiji Toyoda who was then living in a wing of the Toyota Memorial Hospital.  He was in hospital clothes but was warm, gracious, and one of the most alive people I have ever met. He pointed to his desk where he had my book, The Toyota Way, in Japanese and English. He said, "I first read it in English and told the Toyota board that all managers should read this book. It is what Toyota should aspire to be, but we are not yet there." 

We discussed other issues like how he felt about so many companies learning from Toyota. He took that as referring to competitors and said, "We welcome competition as it forces us to get better which is better for the customers."

As we spoke, I began to realize how powerful this man was, often in the background, at Toyota. He was still a senior advisor to the board of directors and when Eiji made a "suggestion" everyone jumped into action. Much of the philosophy behind the Toyota Way came from Eiji, or at least was spoken with such confidence by him that it became a mandate within Toyota. He was a humble man who truly believed in continuous improvement and respect for people that put serving society above his own interests or those of his company.

In Eiji Toyoda’s 1985 memoir, Toyota: Fifty Years in Motion, he said little about his own achievements but much about what his predecessors, teachers, mentors, and colleagues had done for Toyota. He wrote about the valuable talent of young employees who lacked the opportunity to continue their education and why he decided to create a university for them. He described his approach to life, his creative dissatisfaction with the status quo, and his orientation toward the future, saying:

“I believe that the moment I tell myself, ‘I’ve had a full and satisfying life,’ that will be the end… No matter how old I get, I intend always to embrace the future. It’s the same with a company as with people: turn back and it’s all over. You’ve got to look the future in the eye and step straight ahead.”

I’d like to think that even at the end of his 100 years in this life, he was looking forward, stepping straight ahead into whatever his future would be.  

Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years, and blogs at Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.

Image of Eiji Toyoda courtesy of