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Toyota and the origins of innovation

A visit to Toyota’s museum in Japan sheds some useful light on fintech.



Toyoda's circular loom

Last week I spent a week of holiday in Japan, during which time I visited a museum located just outside of Nagoya dedicated to Toyota’s history. It’s excellent, so do visit if you get the chance; and it also got me thinking about innovation.

Fintech is supposed to be driven by innovation; DigFin’s mission is to chronicle the impact of the Information Revolution on finance.

Fintech is, by itself, not that sophisticated: it depends on more foundational innovations in computing power, data analytics, computer networking and connectivity. Fintech applies these in novel ways to address shortcomings, pain points and vulnerable margins in financial services. It has the potential to transform money itself.

Because fintech is now completely digital in nature, the way people in the industry think about “innovation” is based on the Silicon Valley paradigm: disruptive, decentralized, agile –“move fast and break things”; or by China’s recent experience, which relies on scale, relentless iteration, and aggressive ‘platforming’ so that a technology developed for a consumer in one field is deployed to other activities.

But is the digital experience the only relevant one? No, especially not to companies with ambitions to truly transform finance – companies whose founders believe they are creating businesses that will endure long after they’re gone – businesses that will come to define the 21stcentury.

Toyota’s legacy

Toyota Motors is a company that defines the 20thcentury. It’s the world’s third-largest carmaker, and the sixth biggest company worldwide in terms of revenues. It employs nearly 365,000 employees and claims the largest market cap in Japan. Today, in its 93rdyear, Toyota Motors is also the global leader in hybrid electric vehicles.

The first display to greet you in its company museum is a giant circular cotton loom (main image). But wait, you say – a cotton loom? I thought we were here for automobiles!

The company’s origins are in Toyoda Automatic Weaving Mill, founded by Sakichi Toyoda in 1911. The company was something of an outsider, Toyoda the unknown son of a carpenter.

Japan had already began headlong modernization following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, but this was led by family-owned conglomerates such as Mitsui and Mitsubishi that controlled banks, monopolized particular industries, and enjoyed cozy government and military ties. Sakichi, lacking such connections, therefore had to beat these incumbents with superior technology. He would go on to become Japan’s preeminent industrialist.

He ultimately patented around 50 inventions, but the most important was his circular loom. This was not just because of the physical technology, although that too is impressive. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in 18thcentury Britain, inventions such as the Spinning Jenny had mechanized sending a shuttlecock back and forth to spin thread. Sakichi’s loom took this two-dimensional concept and made it 3-D in the shape of a circle, which allowed for continuous weaving while requiring far less energy.

Toyoda initially developed coarse fabrics for the low end of the market. Sakichi avoided competing against the incumbents, whose mills produced fine textiles. This was an early example of disruption by using tech to make it economic to meet the needs of the underserved. While the big conglomerates relied on their status and government ties, Sakichi kept iterating until he had developed a loom so good that could overtake the big players.

Innovation the Toyoda way

Key to the many moving parts of this loom were mechanisms to automatically stop the machine whenever a problem occurred. Sakichi promoted an idea of the ‘five whys’, which gave his workers a template to understand the cause of errors and figure out a way to resolve them.

This was a precursor to Toyota Motors’ famous “just in time” processing, as well as the foundation of today’s lean methodologies. Japan lacks natural resources, and therefore Sakichi obsessed on ways to improve productivity and achieve high quality without waste. What followed was a philosophy of getting to the core of “value”, what a customer would be willing to pay for, and discarding the rest.

So all of those Steve Jobs, Eric Reis and Jack Ma bromides about being lean, agile, and customer-focused owe a great debt to Sakichi Toyoda and the early Japanese textile industry.

Sakichi put these into words. His circular loom was invented in “the spirit of being studious and creative”, and dedicated to “the importance of making things”. Furthermore: “No creative thing should be put on the market unless fully proved in the commercial trial.”

The mission statement, then and now

Later on the company would develop five precepts, what today we’d call a mission statement. They are:

  • Always be faithful to your duties, thereby contributing to the company and to the overall good;
  • Always be studious and creative, striving to stay ahead of the times;
  • Always be practical and avoid frivolousness;
  • Always strive to build a homelike atmosphere at work that is warm and friendly;
  • Always have respect for God, and remember to be grateful at all times.

What’s notable is that the company’s philosophy was not “customer first”. Rather the combination of these tenets is what leads to products and services that delight consumers. 

This package of attitudes is about a million miles away from Mark Zuckerberg’s “move fast and break things” philosophy, but it’s also far more grounded than Facebook’s official mission statement (“to bring the world closer together”) and other generic bumf common to Big Tech companies (to say nothing of WeWork’s execrable “elevating the world’s consciousness”).

Toyoda also assumed a patriarchal attitude toward employees. The company took care of its people: during the Great Depression, it used some funding proceeds to help workers in financial distress; these were the early days of lifetime employment.

The company’s philosophy also differs somewhat from today’s Big Tech ethos in Toyota’s emphasis on relentless testing before putting a product into the marketplace. Being agile is great, but launching a consumer app is just as complex and fraught as introducing a car. The rush to be first to market has, I suspect, ended in more failures than successes.

To realize its ambitions in making cars, the company set up its own steel-making business.

Today, tech companies have a lot more leeway to test and learn from apps already in the wild, while banks’ traditional slow path of testing is now lampooned. And times have changed: what worked for Sakichi isn’t always going to work today. But the company he built is more than 90 years old and still relevant.

From textiles to cars

The company’s move into automobiles germinated in the early 1920s with Sakichi’s son, Kiichiro, who toured the U.S. and Europe and was amazed by the popularity of cars – and impressed by what this said about Western levels of industry and wealth. Kiichiro had grown up among his father’s textile machinery. He went to university to study mechanical engineering, although it would be the friendships he made – later a business network – that would be just as important.

Kiichiro saw the need for a Japanese carmaker, but the big incumbent conglomerates and their government friends didn’t: modernization had been built on rail and shipping.

Kiichiro got his chance when an earthquake in 1923 leveled most of Japan’s infrastructure, while the handful of cars and buses played a critical role in recovery. Then Ford and General Motors set up plants in Japan. With his father’s blessing, Kiichiro began a secret R&D project, importing key machines for textiles that he could adapt to cars. He then negotiated the sale of the circular loom rights to a British manufacturer and used the proceeds to invest in R&D for automobiles.

Textile technology led to designing car seats and airbags

Many of the technologies invented by Sakichi for textiles proved adaptable to cars (such as seats and airbags), although Kiichiro also invested in an in-house capability for steel, to make parts. They also reverse-engineered American cars. The goal was to figure out how to make good-quality vehicles at lower cost than American imports, but without having to rely on volume. Japan was never going to match America for scale.

So once again, Toyoda found itself relying on technology to take on powerful incumbents. And again, the tech it deployed was a combination of engineering marvels and superior organization, with Toyota Motors (spun off as its own company in 1937) now giving name to its “just in time” operations.


To produce “just in time” meant, first, empowering the workers along its assembly line to stop production when confronted with errors, in order to prevent having to make costly fixes later. Secondly it meant extending the concept upstream to Toyota’s suppliers, and downstream to its bespoke dealership network.

This combination of innovations enabled Toyota to surpass the incumbent conglomerates and become Japan’s most important company, and then to beat the Americans. By the 1970s, Japanese cars were outselling American ones. In a panic, American companies strove to understand why they were getting outgunned by a competitor that just a short while ago was producing crappy, bottom-market tin.

G.M. and Ford eventually survived by adopting “just in time” operations, a trend that has since extended throughout the world of logistics, manufacturing, transport – and is now reaching consumer finance, through notions such as data-driven personalization.

Toyota manufacturing today

Toyota helped pioneer a lot in the world of disruptive tech that we so admire, or fear, today: finding an underserved niche, using technology to make it profitable to serve, and then leveraging that learning and agility to overtake incumbents in core markets.

Toyota also led the way in adapting frameworks developed for one industry (textiles) and deploying them elsewhere (cars) – an industrial precursor to, say, Alibaba’s ability to dominate seemingly unrelated sectors.

It did so by taking care of workers, which in Toyoda’s day meant empowering them to make decisions on the assembly line, and helping them through difficult times. Just-in-time techniques allowed huge productivity gains in assembly but required workers to be well trained and rewarded for loyalty. And the supply chains and dealerships created in Toyota’s wake were major employers as well. The lifetime employment culture has created its own problems in Japan today, but at least industry was adding more jobs than it was displacing.

It’s up for debate whether fintech will have the same beneficial impact, but I’d wager that banks or fintech founders that want to be around for generations, rather than until the first business exit, should be thinking about this. A trip to the Toyota commemorative museum in Nagoya may not be a bad place to start.

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