Executive Insider: Shinichi Yasui

Toyota’s EVP of Research & Development talks about his love of wine and running, and his passion for making ever-better cars

September 17, 2018
Running Man -- Overseeing TMNA's research and development operations can be a tiring job, but Shinichi Yasui still finds time to keep his body sharp as an avid runner.

 

Shinichi Yasui grew up in Aichi prefecture in Japan, which happens to be the location of Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) headquarters. He joined Toyota 1988 and served as a chief engineer for the 10th and 11th generation Corolla.
 
It’s because of his work on perhaps the world’s most popular vehicle that Yasui takes product quality as seriously as anyone.
 
His commitment to Toyota products and overall quality intrigued us. Also, there’s that little part about him serving as the head of Toyota Motor North America Research and Development (TMNA R&D) since 2017. That intrigued us, too.
 
So, we sat down with Yasui-san and asked him about his passion for cars and quality, his background and the delicate balance between wine tasting and marathon running.
 
And you can catch more of Yasui-san at the North American Business Update meeting tomorrow. 
 
Driver’s Seat: What’s something you do in your personal life that people might find odd or surprising?
 
Shinichi Yasui: I am a marathon runner. I run a full marathon once or twice a year. Almost every day I run 2 to 3 miles before I go to work. I run 15 to 20 miles on weekends.
 
When I was young, I enjoyed water sports like wind surfing. I loaded my surfboard into my car and often went to the beach in Japan. I also enjoyed scuba diving. Now I just enjoy running.
 
TMC has a big internal event called Ekiden, and more than 30,000 team members participate. Ekiden is a long-distance relay. But, instead of a baton, a tasuki (sash) is handed from one runner to the next. After becoming a chief engineer, I started to participate in Ekiden as a runner. We built a team in each department and practiced a lot. Ekiden embodies values that are essential to people who work at Toyota, such as perseverance, a sense of ownership, and the importance of teamwork. Ekiden was a good opportunity for me to communicate with team members and promote teamwork by striving hard for our goals together.
 
Is it just running or is there anything else surprising about you?
 
I got a qualification as a wine sommelier. I’m certified by the Japan Sommelier Association, which allows me to work as a sommelier at a restaurant. I passed both a written test and a taste test.
 
I also like sake. After I got a wine sommelier qualification, I got another qualification from the Japan Sommelier Association called the "Sake Diploma". It was recently established with the aim of increasing the number of people who can introduce the taste of Japanese sake quantitatively to foreign customers.
 
Just a Taste -- Yasui, a certified sommelier in Japan, enjoying another of his favorite pastimes.

 
What’s your favorite car?

I like the first-generation Corolla. I worked as a chief engineer for Corolla for more than 10 years. I like every generation Corolla, but I’m especially attracted to the first-generation. The reason why I love first-generation Corolla is because it is a very innovative car. The interior is cozy and bright red. It was interesting to adopt red for the entire interior.
 
Corolla celebrated its 50-year anniversary with a limited edition. We followed the original red interior and actually released it. Corolla is an interesting car with a different image in each region.
 
You’ve been with Toyota since 1988. What’s your most challenging professional experience?

Mainly, I have two experiences that were very challenging.

Before I was in charge of Corolla, I was in charge of a small car called “ist (xA in North America).” Currently, it will take about two years for a project in the U.S. to go through the design review to start of production. However, my team and I completed the project within 10 months. We were very busy, but it was fulfilling. After finishing the project, my team member said to me "It was a difficult but challenging, fun job.” It is the car that came out in the shortest development period on record in Toyota.
 
The experience as a chief engineer for Corolla was also a big challenge. We strived to produce a Corolla with consistent ride quality by bringing together people who work at our factories in 16 different bases in the world. For example, customers imagine the same taste of McDonald's hamburgers in Japan and in America. No matter where you eat, it's reasonably priced and always delicious. That leads to reliable quality. The same applies to Corolla. If there are differences between the quality of Corolla made in Pakistan and the quality of Corolla made in America, we won’t meet our customers’ expectations. However, depending on the country, there are differences in factory facilities. We can’t help that. Nevertheless, I tried to adapt it to the highest level. To make the same high-quality Corolla globally. We made activities so that people can work with one voice. It was very challenging to set one goal because people who work at the plants around the world have different cultures and speak different languages.
 
Forever in Blue Jeans -- Yasui was the head engineer for multiple generations of Corolla. But he may not have found a quirkier project than this special edition, denim-wrapped version of the car. 

Are there any quirky projects you’ve worked on?

When TMC launched Corolla Hybrids in Japan in 2013, they made the Promotional Special Edition Corolla that is wrapped with real denim jeans with the aim of making the image of hybrid vehicle casual like blue jeans. The idea was to make Corolla fashionable, relaxing, and popular among men and women of all ages. This vehicle was exhibited at Tokyo Motor Show 2013.  
 
What have you learned since coming to TMNA?

Since I started working at TMNA, I’ve found the team members here are earnest and honest. Initially, I thought that a company in the U.S. would be slightly different from a Japanese company. However, the Toyota Way has spread among team members in TMNA well and it made me feel comfortable to work here.
 
How would you describe your leadership style?

The thing I value the most is "I do it first.” There is a saying from Isoroku Yamamoto, former secretary of the Japanese army. "To inspire people, demonstrate, explain, let them try, and praise them; otherwise, people won't do anything." The point is that, after trying it first, explaining it well, let them do it, and praise them. If we don’t respect each other, it is not easy to lead people.
 
By Haruka Kaneda

Editor's Note: You can catch Shinichi Yasui at tomorrow's North America Business Update meeting. Team members in Plano can watch the meeting live in Sequoia Pavilion or via live webcast. Team members outside of Plano will receive an on-demand link shortly after the meeting's conclusion. 
 
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