Recalling the Kami-sama

iaiXnxVA5T.EA few weeks ago, Bloomberg reported that inside Toyota Motor Corp.’s oldest plant, “there’s a corner where humans have taken over from robots.” President Akio Toyoda has tapped a company veteran, Mitsuru Kawai (pictured above), to promote craftsmanship at Toyota’s plants. Kawai, a senior technical executive of Toyota Motor Corp., started with Toyota during the era of Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System. He credits manual labour for helping workers improve production and cut the costs of making car parts.

We need to become more solid and get back to basics, to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them.

When I was a novice, experienced masters used to be called gods, and they could make anything.

We cannot simply depend on the machines that only repeat the same task over and over again.

To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine.

Toyota recently announced a wide-ranging recall of nearly 6.4 million vehicles worldwide for problems with air bags that may not deploy or seats that could move in a crash. Toyota recalled more than 10 million vehicles in 2009 and 2010 for problems related to unintended acceleration, and still faces many wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits. For two years running, it has called back more than five million vehicles annually in the United States, more than any other automaker, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Although Toyota is recalling the most cars and trucks, it is by no means the only one. The largest 18 automakers issued 184 recalls in the United States in 2013, covering about 19.6 million vehicles.

The return of the “Kami-sama”(*) is emblematic of how Toyoda is reviewing the car maker priorities back toward quality and efficiency from a pure growth mentality.

“Fully automated machines don’t evolve on their own,” said Takahiro Fujimoto, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Manufacturing Management Research Center. “Mechanization itself doesn’t harm, but sticking to a specific mechanization may lead to omission of kaizen and improvement.”

We rely on computers to fly our planes, find our cancers, design our buildings, audit our businesses. That’s all well and good. But what happens when the computer fails? In “All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines”, Nicholas Carr explains how automation, for all its benefits, can take a toll on the performance and talents of those who rely on it. The implications go well beyond safety. Automation alters how we act, how we learn, and what we know, therefore it has an ethical dimension:

Whether it’s a pilot on a flight deck, a doctor in an examination room, or an Inuit hunter on an ice floe, knowing demands doing. One of the most remarkable things about us is also one of the easiest to overlook: each time we collide with the real, we deepen our understanding of the world and become more fully a part of it. While we’re wrestling with a difficult task, we may be motivated by an anticipation of the ends of our labor, but it’s the work itself—the means—that makes us who we are. Computer automation severs the ends from the means. It makes getting what we want easier, but it distances us from the work of knowing. As we transform ourselves into creatures of the screen, we face an existential question: Does our essence still lie in what we know, or are we now content to be defined by what we want? If we don’t grapple with that question ourselves, our gadgets will be happy to answer it for us.

Knowing demands doing!


(*) kami-sama can be used for a divinity, or for an outstanding human

Featured Image, Mitsuru Kawai, senior technical executive of Toyota Motor Corp. (Bloomberg)

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