KIYOSU, Aichi Prefecture--At the plant of TG Welfare Co. in this central Japan city, 20 workers, including 12 with mental disabilities, are processing parts for Toyota vehicles.
It's been two years since Fumitoshi Honda started a lifelong employment program for people with disabilities at TG Welfare. The plant's ratio of rejected products has remained at a paltry 0.02 percent.
"There is no problem with (product) quality," said an official at Toyoda Gosei Co., TG Welfare's parent company.
The 58-year-old Honda served 10 years as the chairman of the trade union at Toyoda Gosei, a parts maker affiliated with Toyota Motor Corp. He still remembers the distressed expression on the face of a union member who told him about his worries over the future of his disabled child.
Honda was sent on loan to TG Welfare, Toyoda Gosei's welfare subsidiary, in the autumn of 2008, in the capacity of senior managing director. He soon created a new division to deal in parts processing.
"If the company states 'welfare' in its name, why don't we hire disabled people for the sake of community welfare?" he said one day.
In the beginning, few of the workers had the patience to remain standing in front of the work table even for five minutes. The reject ratio exceeded 60 percent. A number of workers asked to quit.
But Honda overcame that with the spirit of "kaizen" (improvement), a Toyota slogan and factory business method now practiced by companies around the world.
Honda visited the workers' homes and listened to their worries over the use of their wages and their workplace problems. He recorded their daily progresses in an in-house diary.
The workers became more efficient and productive after Honda had the table heights adjusted and had partitions installed.
Throughout those efforts, Honda enlisted the extensive help of Koyo Fukushikai, a nongovernmental welfare association based in Gifu. One Koyo Fukushikai member likened Honda to a "demanding Buddha." That is, the member said, because Honda sets high standards, but has merciful eyes.
"I am happy that I can earn money for my work," said one of his employees.
"I am pleased to see everybody at my workplace," said another.
TG Welfare now produces 46 processed-part items, an increase from just eight at the outset.
All the 20 workers set aside 20,000 yen ($254) a month for the employee savings system.
"That means they won't have to worry even if they have reached retirement age and find out that their parents are gone," Honda said.
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