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Tech & Innovation
FEB 19, 2018

The Essence of Japanese Philosophy and Innovation at Toyota

By Zsuzsanna Járfás, With Tetsuya Kaida
iStock photo/dogayusufdokdok

How do groundbreaking changes happen? Is it random chance, or can organizations take control to spur innovation? To answer these questions, Zsuzsanna Jarfas interviewed Professor Tetsuya Kaida, a key architect behind several of Toyota Motor Corporation’s revolutionary concepts.

ZSJ: To begin, what does innovation mean to you? Is it technology, visionary ideas, a business model? An experience?

TK: To me personally, it is none of those things. The term “innovation” doesn’t even exist in the Japanese language. Many people think that there is no need for it. Great masterminds like Kisho Kurokawa and Hayao Miyazaki would never have called what they did “innovation” or “creativity.” They went about their daily routine, and their passion resonated in the hearts of a few people. Where others saw deviation from the normal, these first followers read instead a story that expanded into the future. Their contagious passion and imagination attracted more followers, and the “story” was then marked as “innovation.”

ZSJ: Do the Toyota hybrids share the same pattern? When developing the Prius, for example, did you know you were working on a breakthrough?

TK: Absolutely not. It was all business as usual. Project teams would gather regularly to brainstorm new ideas, develop concepts. We wanted to have multiple points of view, and therefore decided to draw project members from a wide range of departments, experts in diverse disciplines. While we definitely enjoyed sponsorship at the highest executive level, we still encountered endless resistance from those, who had “never heard of it.” Over time, perseverance did pay off and our internal allies kept growing.

We owe the breakthrough to our fans in California. Thanks to them, it was our hybrid that made it to market success, out of so many brilliant idea s out there.

ZSJ: Was there anything on your end that helped make the magic happen?

TK: An organization’s nature is “to promote order and routine” (T. Levitt). Every once in a while, however, there comes a moment when people in the organization will want to listen to a new voice. To go back to our case with the hybrids, the time and place were right. Our perseverance paid off, and corporate sponsors caught on to the idea. Influential fans read our story and found in it exactly what they were looking for.

ZSJ: What is your message to those who would like to follow in your footsteps?

TK:  Blossom where you are right now. Stop searching for paradise. Make every single opportunity you have, every single occasion that you are part of, a new piece of paradise. This will be your heritage, your future identity, your reputation.

Too many people are obsessed with personal branding and standing out from the crowd. How about doing something meaningful for the crowd once in a while? How about looking around and finding opportunities for doing things better? Helping others do things better? Innovation should be an integral part of our daily lives, and it starts with the little things, such as making up your bed in the morning, cleaning up your desk at work.

Wanting to be Einstein, but waiting for someone to come and clean things up after you simply doesn’t work. We all need to create a sustainable environment of growth and harmony. Try to improve the world we live in; blossom here before planning to move ahead.