Cultural Communication and the Fate of the Yaris
December 1st, 2003
Claude Boulle, former Ministry of Labor official and current Vice President of Administration at the Toyota Onnaing production facility, quietly sat at his desk among a sea of executives in a collective, open work space. Despite having worked at Toyota's Onnaing automotive factory in the suburbs of Valenciennes, France for several years, Boulle felt uncomfortable at his desk; he still was not used to the Japanese style of shared working space. He missed his private office. Sitting among the clamor and din of a half dozen executives, Boulle began to daydream. The first Yaris, the company's most popular and successful model, rolled off production floors less than three years ago. Today, his facility produced upwards of 200,000 cars a year. Restless, he stood up and headed out to the corporate cafeteria for a late breakfast. Along the way, he passed several young French employees clad in blue and white jackets emblazoned with the company's logo: dual, intersecting ovals that formed a sleek and modern T.' Below the logo, the jackets were personalized with the employees' first names. In the cafeteria, Boulle dined with a number of floor workers having just returned from morning exercises. He hadn't thought it possible
Toyota had managed to construct a world class, state-ofthe-art production facility capable of producing 16,500 units a month utilizing the Toyota Way1 , a comprehensive philosophy composed of 14 management principles for successful automotive manufacturing. Given that Toyota established the Valenciennes plant just a few years ago, Boulle was skeptical that a Japanese corporate environment and management style was applicable in a French environment. He had good reason the cultures were so different. Mixed feelings still existed on the work floor and in the executive office, but the Japanese prepared well before arriving. Corporate offices in Tokyo had researched long ago probable French reaction to the Toyota Way.2 Having sent executives to live and study in France, as well as in French Canada, the firm felt ready to select a site. Today, Toyota Onnaing still was not free from cultural misunderstanding, but the Yaris retained its market share in Europe. Boulle wondered, though, how long success would last, and if Toyota could weather a longer storm. He returned to his desk, collected his employee evaluation sheets, and prepared for a board meeting with plant President Hiroaki Watanabe and CGT, a French labor union. One week earlier, several recently fired employees had filed a formal complaint against management, charging harassment on the work floor3. Toyota claimed that the workers were belligerently absent and routinely arrived for their shift up to thirty minutes late. Boulle sighed after all the company had accomplished and compromised, this was the third similar occurrence in a month.
1 See exhibit 1 for a listing of all 14 Toyota Way principles. 2 Tagliabue, John. At a French Factory, Culture is a Two-Way Street' New York Times. February 25, 2001. Page 4.
3 CGT denounces trade union repression and harassment.' France Press Agency. November 26, 2003. Had Toyota managed a cross cultural miracle, or would the Yaris fall victim to unresolved cultural differences? Union challenges in Japan were uncommon, and Japanese management in Valenciennes often responded slowly to labor complaints. This was still one area of cultural management that had not been sufficiently addressed. Historical background
Valenciennes: a recovering economically depressed region
Valenciennes is a medium-sized city of 350,000 inhabitants in the northeast of France near the Belgium border. The region was severely struck by the steel crisis of the 1970s and the following constriction of the coal mining industry. With an unemployment rate approaching 30% during the 1980s, the region suffered from economic depression. Unemployment...