What the Japanese Bayberry Trees Have Seen Stories from the Early Years of Yamaha Motor
Introducing the stories behind Yamaha Motor's technologies.
Since Yamaha was a late entry in the field of motorcycle manufacturing, it was nearly impossible for the company to gain an advantage in terms of production volume or cost performance initially. There was a shared resolution at the company: to succeed against the established manufacturers for the time being, our attitude was to prioritize product quality over production numbers and costs. So when it came to product quality, President Kawakami’s stance was firm: unrelenting efforts must be made and no compromises will be permitted.
The president’s desk was located at the far end and in the center of the cramped barracks-like offices in the remodeled wooden building I mentioned earlier. On most afternoons he would be on the factory floor watching over and directing the workers. In 1957, our management system was reorganized to appoint factory managers and office managers. Appointed as a factory manager, my desk was located next to President Kawakami’s. I received a lot of instructions and learned much from him, and today I realize how very fortunate I was for having that invaluable experience.
Adjacent to the president’s desk were two large boxes, one red and one blue, both sized 70×50×30 cm. Everyone thought this was kind of strange, but these were for warranty claims he had reviewed and claims yet to be reviewed. When an underperforming part was returned to the factory, a written description of each issue had to be submitted to President Kawakami, with nothing hidden. Of course, stringent review and intense discussion would begin right away to find the cause of each problem and measures to rectify it. Once decisions were made, tasks were divided up and tests were run to devise solutions immediately.
This was how we were handling the various complaints and claims concerning the YD-1, but it soon became clear that some of them were the result of deep-rooted problems in the model that could not be remedied with make-shift measures. In the case of the YD-1, drastic action was needed.
Regarding the roughly 3,000 problematic engines we had sent out before we were able to produce an engine with stable performance, we came up with corrective measures that involved shipping out spare replacement engines to dealers around the country for them to swap into customer bikes. The dealers then sent the original engines to us at the factory where we rebuilt them to the latest specifications. We then returned them back to the dealerships to replace the spare engine.
Of course, this was a massive, hugely expensive and work-intensive undertaking, but it was carried out anyway by President Kawakami’s direct order. He continuously pushed his idea of “Absolute Quality,” saying “We must never cause trouble for the customers because they made their purchase with their faith in Yamaha. This is truly an excellent opportunity to really win their trust by standing behind the quality of our products.”
To facilitate this collection and repair operation, we had planned and built a separate production line at the factory so the work that we initially thought would be difficult to carry out was actually successfully completed in a few months. I suppose you could say that this was an early example of today’s recall system that now legally requires such measures.
46Today’s Substandard Parts
Many companies today exhort their employees in what seems like a competition to keep equipment in good repair and their workplaces neat, clean and hygienic (the “4S” values in Japanese of seiri, seiton, seiketsu and seisou). However, I think Yamaha Motor was quite ahead of its time by instilling these values from the very start.
The president expected employees to treat the factory floor as if it was the tatami-mat floors of their homes, and meticulous company-wide measures were implemented to promote these 4S values. Just to give one example, on Saturdays after work, all employees would gather and line up to weed the company lawns.
One day, as President Kawakami was inspecting the factory he came across a pile of parts stacked up in a corner and everyone within earshot got a good scolding.
“What is this?” he asked.
“Parts that didn’t meet standards, sir.”
“Why are there so many piled up here like this?”
“Well, once we get one month’s worth, we count them, compile statistics and investigate the cause to come up with ways to remedy the problems...”
“What do you mean you’re compiling one month’s worth!?” he shouted. “You can’t be so relaxed about this! If you work to eliminate substandard parts every single day as part of your job, they shouldn’t pile up like this. From now on, when a substandard part is produced I want you to put it in the hallway or someplace obvious so everyone can see it. They are to be assessed and dealt with every day. I want you to put up a sign over the place that says, ‘Today’s Substandard Parts.’ Understood? It must be ‘Today’s.’”
The president was emphatic with his directives. This really is the basic approach for proper quality control and what we had been doing daily was simply a formality and something that had no heart in it, so we all reflected deeply on our misguided actions to that point. As you walk through the factory even today, you can see the places where “Today’s Substandard Parts” are displayed. This measure has also taken on another form with “Current Substandard Parts,” and that’s the sort of thing I think we need to really continue in all fields of our work.
47Review and Restructure
I remember something else that happened back then. One day I was giving President Kawakami a tour through the warehouse, and he turned to me and asked:
“What’s that noise?”
“That’s the sound of parts being counted prior to sending them to the assembly lines.”
“Why do we have to count them?”
“To make sure the number of parts to be sent matches the number of parts requested from the lines.”
“Why are you wasting time doing that?” he chided me. “The parts were purchased and have already been delivered to us, so as long as you keep track of the number of finished products going out, we don’t need to count the parts throughout the process. We have all the parts we need somewhere within the company. You’re putting up organizational barriers and that’s why you need to use invoices and count everything. Simplify the job and stop wasting time with counting every single part. Get started on streamlining the process.”
As a result of this conversation, the parts management system employed at Nippon Gakki of using internal invoices between the sections in the factory was eliminated at Yamaha Motor. And, when we procured parts, we had suppliers bundle or bag the parts in lots of ten whenever possible. It was a far more logical process. Recently the term “visible management” has come into vogue, but this was something that President Kawakami had already introduced at Yamaha when managing the factory many years ago. This is one more reason why he was held in such high esteem.
48Lessons from the President
I believe President Kawakami always held on to a dream while he headed the company. I think his belief was that, since we’d started a new business, it went without saying that we needed to do everything possible to ensure its success. And once our enterprise was underway, he wanted to be decisive and put all of the things he had in mind day to day into practice so that he could create a utopian kind of workplace.
In his efforts to ensure the company’s success, the president actively instituted many experimental policies, some of which could not be implemented at Nippon Gakki. His aims and measures included: establishing Yamaha’s reputation for “Absolute Quality;” keeping the factories neat and clean; methodically reducing waste through rationalization; focusing on employee happiness by instituting fixed salaries; awarding gold, silver and bronze medals to encourage and reward excellent employee proposals; establishing a company cafeteria; supplying work uniforms to all employees; eliminating overtime by improving efficiency; reducing Saturday work hours to half-days; giving bi-annual pay raises; training for female workers to expand and develop their range of skills; and reorganizing the sales network.
Of course it’s impossible to list all the innovative policies the president introduced, but something of particular note was the tremendous emphasis he placed on developing employee skills and knowledge, so that Yamaha might not have the most workers, but it would have the very best in the business.
On March 10th, 1958, I received a written memo from the president. The following is the memo word-for-word:
“Confucius said ‘He who is the first to face difficulties and the last to reap the rewards is a man of true benevolence.’ Confucius takes ‘benevolence’ to be a moral superior even to ‘virtue.’ Before anything else, if there isn’t the will to face problems and solve them, a company’s management is sure to fail. One more from Zixia (one of Confucius’ top disciples): ‘A petty person always tries to gloss over his mistakes.’ Whenever narrow-minded or incompetent people make a mistake, they always make wordy excuses to avoid taking responsibility for what they did. I see and hear this kind of thing daily at the factory and it’s a displeasing sight. People like this will never be leaders. As a point of reference for you, make sure they don’t end up behind those thinkers from the Copper Age some 2,400 to 2,500 years ago.”
This memo had a profound impact on me; it was like my brain had frozen. I felt like it was as if I could see my own displeasing face in the mirror, and I was particularly full of disgust knowing that many of the things concerned me directly. I was forced to critically view my own actions, and I didn’t like what I saw. But when I thought about it, I realized I would put off any difficult task in front of me and would always work thinking about how this or that might influence my paycheck or my position in the company. Was I such a pathetic man?
And in spite of my own lack of talent or ability, I always strove to make myself look good. When I made a mistake, I would hide my error, push the responsibility on others or only make excuses. And when speaking to the president or to my superiors, I only reported good news and avoided saying anything that might reflect badly on myself. I had realized how really unproductive everything I had been doing was. Repenting these shortcomings I saw in myself and wanting to remember the president’s valuable lessons, I made it my motto. Following the motto has been difficult—no matter how many years have passed since then—but I have persevered in my efforts to follow the president’s teachings.
Then in 1960 when Nippon Gakki and Yamaha Motor were expanding in scale, hiring more employees and the organization became more complex, an even greater degree of responsibility and determination was required from management-level employees, so President Kawakami issued the President’s Directive:
In evaluating the results of your departments, all general and department managers should regard the efforts made and measures taken by your employees with the highest praise, and consider your department’s business successes solely as their achievement. Even if it was work done under your own direction, you must consider it an achievement of your employees and praise them for it. In the case of a failure by your employees, even if it was due to their own failure to abide by your instructions and warnings, you must understand the failure to be entirely the result of your own errors in educating them.
Truer words were never spoken. I question those in management if they can swear to each other that they have never broken the Directive, but I feel there is worth in and a need to rewrite it here should they need to remember it again.
49 Protecting Your Company
The company’s business had been going well together with the positive results we had been posting in races. Our victory at the 2nd Asama Highlands Race in the fall of 1957 brought much hope and gave a huge boost to company morale, and the celebratory 100-motorcycle parade we ran through the streets of Hamamatsu only heightened our spirits and motivation.
Then in September 1959, a new and long-awaited modern office building was built on the grounds of the main factory in Hamakita. However, only two days after moving into the new building I was sent back to Nippon Gakki. My next transfer was to Showa Manufacturing and afterwards to Kitagawa Auto, two of our group companies. It wasn’t until 1966—an absence of some seven years—that I would finally return to Yamaha Motor headquarters.
During my absence, Yamaha released the MF-1 moped and the SC-1 scooter in 1960. These models plagued the company with problems which contributed to Yamaha’s inability to pay dividends for its 15th fiscal period in 1962. It was the company’s most serious financial crisis ever.
That year President Kawakami had Koike-san (Yamaha Motor’s president in 1978) transfer from Nippon Gakki and serve as the company’s general manager. Koike-san worked day and night, making massive contributions such as completely reorganizing the sales network. The way this helped us expand to the levels we’re at today is something everyone knows now.
Koike-san was later promoted to managing executive officer, then senior executive officer, and became the company president in 1974. Since then, the dynamite duo of President Koike and Chairman Kawakami has been the lynchpin of Yamaha and has guided the company to the present day. But, while the company has been on a path for greater expansion ever since Koike-san took the reins, the road has never been smooth and the headwinds have been chilly.
The first major setback occurred in 1971 with the so-called “Nixon Shock.” It was followed by the 1973 oil embargo, inflation, price increases, excessive inventory in the U.S. and production cuts. After we thought we had overcome all these obstacles, the relief lasted for but a moment. From 1977 onwards the high value of the yen never fell and Yamaha Motor’s profit margins were dealt a serious blow. It seemed as if even the gods had turned their backs on the company.
But looking back, I think overcoming so many challenges over the years is what forged the Yamaha Spirit. The Yamaha Spirit is carrying out what is written in the Company Pledge and also the indomitable spirit and will nurtured by President Kawakami from the earliest days of the company. This spirit lives on with President Koike, and I firmly believe that the company will continue to flourish and grow under his leadership. I would like to believe that the current challenges have provided an excellent opportunity to truly improve the company in all aspects.
These days I often find myself repeating the words of samurai Shikanosuke Yamanaka. It’s said that before heading to battle, he said, “If hardship or adversity shall befall me, then let it fall without end. There is a limit to my life but as long as I have strength, it is nothing more than an opportunity to test it.” I believe that this kind of spirit is absolutely necessary in hard times like these.
At the end of the book Business & Management written by the late Chairman Kaichi Kawakami, he describes his herculean effort to keep the company afloat during and after the war years with the following words:
“We are now fighting our way through a veritable flood of difficulties, but we cannot allow ourselves to be defeated by them. As long as we have strength, we must swim on and support one another so that we may reach the safety of the shore on the other side. We will not give up hope. All the struggles we have faced in the past have only made our arms and legs stronger, and our strength will surely be enough for us to swim over the big waves that lie ahead.”
President Koike shares this management philosophy and he tells the employees how important it is to “protect your company with your own strength.” By believing in our own strength as a company we can overcome the crisis now facing us. Especially now, we must meet President Koike’s expectations, work together as one, overcome the hurdles we face and protect the company with our own hands. Take heart, Yamaha employees! Be confident! We have the strength to endure and swim through these waves as well.
50What the Japanese Bayberry Trees Have Seen
On the south side of the main office building at Yamaha headquarters in Iwata stands a lone but fine Japanese bayberry tree. I looked into finding out whether the tree had always been there or if it had been transplanted from the Hamakita Factory but nothing concrete emerged. When I first noticed the tree, it was standing where the main office is today. On October 27th, 1967, the tree was blown over by that year’s Typhoon No. 34, exposing its roots to the lashing rain, but it was quickly righted, replanted and nurtured, saving it from a premature death.
Later, when the present main office building was being built, the tree was moved to where it stands today and I’ve always felt like there was some kind of strange connection between this species of tree and Yamaha. Ever since the headquarters was moved to Iwata, this tree—like the one that has stood guard at the Hamakita Factory from the day the company was founded—has weathered harsh storms, heavy snowfalls and the many vicissitudes of the four seasons, a silent witness to Yamaha’s history through it all. It’s as if the tree spurs on Yamaha to continue to prosper long into the future. Sometimes I imagine what this Japanese bayberry tree would say if it could talk, but I also know that it will never speak.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and thank you very much for your warm words, letters of encouragement and for the many relevant materials you’ve so kindly contributed.
As someone who was able to be involved in and experience all the challenges and hardships Yamaha had to overcome during its early history, I was fueled by the simple yet burning sense of duty of an old man to pass on my experiences to the next generation of Yamaha employees, which is something that may have led me to write and ramble on somewhat excessively, so I ask for your indulgence.
Today, as our entire company is once again facing severe challenges, I have written this in hopes that you too will take this as an opportunity to save the company with your own hands and thereby write another glowing page in Yamaha’s history. These are my final words on what happened behind the scenes in Yamaha Motor’s earliest days.
“O Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” — Percy Bysshe Shelley
Written on a cold and windy day in December 1978
5250 Years Before and 50 Years Later
On June 30th, 2005, a single Japanese bayberry tree was planted in front of the offices at Yamaha Motor headquarters. It was a young tree, its trunk thin enough to wrap your palm around. But, within its slender trunk are memories tracing back to years before the company’s founding.
On February 11th, 1955, at the Nippon Gakki Hamana Factory (the Hamakita Factory in 2005), the beautiful exhaust note of Yamaha’s first motorcycle, the YA-1, echoed through the air as the bike departed to its delivery destination in Hamamatsu. Lined up at the front gate to see it off stood the roughly 80 people that made up the factory’s employees.
Before this same factory became the birthplace of Yamaha motorcycles, there were already rows of about a dozen Japanese bayberry trees lining both sides of the building.
Fifty years later, the day was June 30th, 2005.
A single Japanese bayberry tree was planted in front of the offices at Yamaha headquarters.
It cannot speak, but this young tree was grafted from the one at Hamakita that has seen so much of Yamaha’s history unfold.
It is still no taller than an adult, but it has bathed in the summer sun, known the chill of autumn and faced the cold of winter, sinking its roots deep in the soil in preparation to spread its branches wide.
In this young tree’s life, we see just a glimpse of the strength that will see it through the next 50 years to come.
And just around the corner is its first spring in its new home.
*From Yamaha Motor’s company newsletter in February 2006, the year after the company’s 50th anniversary