One thing I wanted to learn when I started reading about lean: given that Toyota is supposed to be so great at everything, why is it that, when I last shopped for a car, fully intending to buy one of their models, the experience was so bad that it (or rather they, I tried two dealerships) drove me to one of their competitors? (Saturn, in this case.) They could have made money off of me if they’d just acted like decent people, instead of making it clear that all they cared about was ripping me off. Admittedly, I did get a certain pleasure from one of the salespeople putting a lit cigarette into his shirt pocket, but I didn’t see any sort of exciting “lean sales” practice, any leveraging of their apparent ability to nimbly respond to conditions, any recognition that inventory should be considered waste. It seemed pretty much the same as standard practice in this country, maybe a bit worse.

It would seem, however, that sales practice in Japan really is quite different than in the US. Kind of creepy, actually – apparently, once you’ve bought a car, that sales person will then contact you quite frequently, even stopping by your house (most Japanese car sales don’t/didn’t take place in dealerships), checking in on how things are going, sizing up your future car-buying plans, or when you’re not about to buy a car at least improving their feel for the moods of the populace, to help Toyota’s strategic planning.

I wouldn’t like that, either. I want to talk to a dealer when I’m interested in buying a car, and I’m happy to continue in a relationship with a dealer after that (e.g. bringing it to them for maintenance), as long as I don’t feel they’re actively working against me. But I want to be the one in control of the relationship, not them. Still, it does seem a less actively adversarial relationship than a traditional American car sales relationship, which is certainly a plus.

Apparently they even take responsibility for fixing their cars whether or not they remain under warranty, in order to keep customers loyal. If only Saturn had done the same thing, we’d probably stay with them indefinitely; alas, our older car had to have its engine replaced because of a design flaw that (in our case) didn’t manifest itself until after the warranty expired. So if having to spend several thousand of our dollars because of their design flaws is what we have to expect from Saturn in the future, then no more Saturn. Maybe Honda will prove a nice mix of reliable cars plus a non-asshole sales force? (To be clear, we’re not shopping for a car now, nor are we planning to any time soon.)

Despite my misgivings about it (which are apparently growing more common in Japan, too: at-home car sales are declining, or at least were at the time the book was written), I can see how Toyota’s Japanese sales philosophy fits into their lean mindset. Lean likes to generate and feed off of high-quality information, so get that from your customers, too. An ability to easily customize means that you can encourage your sales force to meet with customers to pick the options on the car that best suits their needs and moods instead of forcing the customer to take whatever’s on the lot. As I already said, no lot means no inventory, which lean loves. Maybe the less adversarial sales/customer relationship is similar to their less adversarial manager/worker relationship. (About which I’ll write later; both relationships are uncomfortably constricting from my point of view, too.) And an ability to produce high-quality cars means that they can affort to fix defects that escape into the wild.

It does seem to be an aspect of lean that hasn’t made it to this country, though; and while I obviously don’t think that the standard American car sales model has much to recommend it, this sales model seems rather off as well. In an environment where customers have increasing access to choice and high-quality information, then treating them well will probably pay off more and more; acting like a (nice) stalker, not so much.

Maybe Toyota’s already changed their practices in Japan in the intervening decade and a half; I should look into that. The section in Lean Software Development on contracts might give some clues, too – after all, those are customer relationships, just of a slightly different nature.

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