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Published: August 1, 2014
 / Autumn 2014 / Issue 76

 
 

For Honda, Waigaya Is the Way

At the Japanese auto giant, unplanned, agenda-free meetings are ubiquitous and indispensable.

None of the conference rooms were available, so the meeting was held in a maintenance closet: an 8-by-8-foot room with mops, brooms, and brushes, and the smell of detergent in the air. Ten men and women squeezed into the tiny space. They all wore white pants and white shirts with their first names embroidered in red on the upper right side. It’s the uniform that every Honda Motor Company employee, whether pipe fitter or president, wears on the job at every factory or office. This is intended to diminish the influence of rank; in the moment-to-moment give-and-take of Honda workers’ daily responsibilities, all points of view or suggestions are equal. You may agree or think them foolish, but others’ title or position, camouflaged by their uniforms, should not be a factor in drawing your conclusion.

Shoehorned into the room were factory floor managers, assembly line associates (that’s Honda’s term for workers), and quality control experts at the Anna, Ohio, engine plant, where Honda has been making motors and drivetrain components since 1985. The plant, which was opened three years after Honda inaugurated its first U.S. automobile factory in nearby Marysville, Ohio, produces about 1.2 million motors a year, making it one of the world’s largest engine factories.

A serious crisis on the plant floor spurred this spontaneous meeting. A supplier had sent the Anna team dozens of camshafts with a hairline defect that produced a faint, rhythmic chirping sound in the engine. This noise, barely audible but disturbing, was discovered at the Marysville plant at the end of the Honda Accord sedan assembly line when workers revved the motors for the first time. Because of the tight conditions under the hood, it appeared that it would be impossible to remove the defective camshafts without taking the engines out of the cars as well.

The factory managers at the two plants drew up a preliminary plan to ship the affected Accords 50 miles from Marysville to Anna, where the engines could be repaired and reinstalled. It seemed like the only viable option, although clearly not a desirable one. The whole process, not counting transportation, could take upward of three hours per car. When the plan was relayed to the Anna workers, a quality control specialist shook her head, saying: “Let’s get off the floor and talk about it.”

Such unplanned, shapeless gatherings are the hallmark of the Honda Way. They are called waigaya, which isn’t a word in Japanese or any other language, but rather a name given them by Takeo Fujisawa, the business partner of company founder Soichiro Honda (at least according to company lore). He chose the word because to him the three syllables sounded like babble, the jabber of many people talking at the same time—Wai-ga-ya, wai-ga-ya, wai-ga-ya; in English, it could be hubbub. It is the noise of heated discussion and the free flow of ideas; it represents a battleground of facts and opinions—of chaotic communication, open disagreement, and inharmonious decision making.

Of course, most waigaya don’t start out so dramatically. On that day in Anna, away from the thrum of the factory, in the quiet, albeit congested, maintenance room, a Honda manager said to the others, “Look, I’d prefer not to belabor this issue because we’ve got a lot of work to do to get this process moving. And since the fix will be such a time sink, let’s not make it worse by losing more time discussing it.”

Although most in the room concurred with the manager, one of the associates noted testily: “We’re doing something very wrong if a slight problem in the engine isn’t addressed until the end of the vehicle’s assembly line, when we have no choice but to tear the car back down. We should have discovered this problem before.”

 
 
 
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