The story begins with Sakichi Toyoda, a tinkerer and inventor, not unlike Henry Ford, who grew up in the late 1800s in a remote farming community outside of Nagoya. At that time, weaving was a major industry and the Japanese government, wishing to promote the development of small businesses, encouraged the creation of cottage industries spread across Japan. Small shops and mills employing a handful of people was the norm. Housewives made a little spending money by working in these shops or at home. As a boy, Toyoda learned carpentry from his father and eventually applied that skill to designing and building wooden spinning machines. In 1894 he began to make manual looms that were cheaper but worked better than existing looms.
Toyoda was pleased with his looms, but disturbed that his mother, grandmother, and their friends still had to work so hard spinning and weaving. He wanted to find a way to relieve them of this punishing labor, so he set out to develop power-driven wooden looms.
This was an age when inventors had to do everything themselves. There were no large R&D departments to delegate work to. When Toyoda first developed the power loom, there was no available power to run the loom, so he turned his attention to the problem of generating power. Steam engines were the most common source of power, so he bought a used steam engine and experimented with running the looms from this source. He figured out how to make this work by trial and error and getting his hands dirty—an approach that would become part of the foundation of the Toyota Way, genchi genbutsu. In 1926, He started Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, the parent firm of the Toyota Group and still a central player in the Toyota conglomerate (or keiretsu) today.
Toyoda’s endless tinkering and inventing eventually resulted in sophisticated automatic power looms that became “as famous as Mikimoto pearls and Suzuki violins” (Toyoda, 1987). Among his inventions was a special mechanism to automatically stop a loom whenever a thread broke—an invention that evolved into a broader system that became one of the two pillars of the Toyota Production System, called jidoka (automation with a human touch). Essentially, jidoka means building in quality as you produce the material or “mistake proofing.” It also refers to designing operations and equipment so your workers are not tied to machines and are free to perform value-added work.
Throughout his life, Sakichi Toyoda was a great engineer and later referred to as Japan’s “King of Inventors.” However, his broader contribution to the development of Toyota was his philosophy and approach to his work, based on a zeal for continuous improvement. Interestingly, this philosophy, and ultimately the Toyota Way, was significantly influenced by his reading of a article first published in England in 1859 by Samuel Smiles entitled Self-Help (Smiles, 2002). It preaches the virtues of industry, thrift, and self-improvement, illustrated with stories of great inventors like James Watt, who helped develop the steam engine. The article so inspired Sakichi Toyoda that a copy of it is on display under glass in a museum set up at his birth site.
As I read Samuel Smiles’ article, I could see how it influenced Toyoda. First of all, Smiles’ inspiration for writing the article was philanthropic. It grew out of his efforts to help young men in difficult economic circumstances who were focused on improving themselves—Smiles’ goal was not to make money. Second, the article chronicles inventors whose natural drive and inquisitiveness led to great inventions that changed the course of humanity. For example, Smiles concludes that the success and impact of James Watt did not come from natural endowment but rather through hard work, perseverance, and discipline. These are exactly the traits displayed by Sakichi Toyoda in making his power looms work with steam engines. There are many examples throughout Smiles’ article of “management by facts” and the importance of getting people to pay attention actively—a hallmark of Toyota’s approach to problem solving based on genchi genbutsu.