A Refreshing New Development: Two Retire, Their Gaze Fixed on Honda's Future
The question had been present in Senior Managing Director Takeo Fujisawa's mind as far back as 1956, when Honda Motor had at last attained success with its motorcycle business. What was the optimal corporate structure, he wondered, that would allow the company to continue growing?
The Big Boardroom: Imminent challenges and other issues were solved promptly through discussions such as these. Kiyoshi Kawashima is shown second from the left.
One idea was that the Research Division should be separate and independent from Honda Motor. That concept, though opposed initially, eventually came to reality with the establishment of Honda Motor R&D Co., Ltd., on July 1, 1960. However, it was not until considerable time had been spent deliberating the matter.
The idea behind an independent division for research and development was to create a system in which the collective power of many experts could be put to full use rather than relying solely upon the power of a single genius, Soichiro Honda. During that period, Fujisawa was painfully aware of an additional problem, that being the need to develop the talent that could succeed Honda and himself in leading the company. As Fujisawa had so often told Michihiro Nishida (the former executive vice-president) and others, "The founder's most important job is to preserve the fundamental practices of managing a business on behalf of the next generation."
Recalled Nishida of that period in the company's history, "I believe it was something Mr. Fujisawa had in mind for a long time. He believed that the most important job for the company's two founders was to make an appropriate decision regarding who would take over, once they'd left the company. That's why he spent more than a decade training his potential successors."
The directors' meetings were from early on attended by several young general managers and assistant general managers, upon the instructions of Fujisawa. He would ask them to present the details of a particular agenda and participate in debates, always aware of their ability to contribute. It was through such activities that these younger employees would receive the skills they'd need to enter the upper management.
Kiyoshi Kawashima became a member of the board of directors in April 1962, at the age of only 34, during a period in which Honda Motor produced a number of young directors. Within a year of his appointment, there were four directors, each of whom had another title of significant responsibility. Kiyoshi Kawashima was the general manager at Saitama Factory, Kihachiro Kawashima was the executive vice-president of American Honda, Nishida was the general manager of the Foreign Division, and Takao Shirai was the R&D Center's director. One day, however, Fujisawa summoned them to company headquarters, whereupon he announced that they would be dismissed from their duties as the managers of each respective division.
"So, what are we to do now?" wondered the four directors aloud. Only a day earlier they were busy fulfilling their duties, and now they had been thrown into a state of confusion as the board of to what their dismissals were all about. In fact, it would take another three or four months for them to fully understand the reasoning behind Fujisawa's decision.
"We came to realize," Nishida recalled, "that we had done nothing as the board of directors, although we had performed our duties as managers. Mr. Fujisawa carried out this change in our positions so that we would become aware of that fact through direct experience."
Thus, the four directors began pondering a new question-namely, what a director was.
Fujisawa, in answering the question, told the four of them to "think about what a director should be doing."
The four men debated this question among themselves every day. Faced with a question resembling those asked in a Zen mondo or Q&A session, they often took to the streets of Ginza to discuss it over Japanese hotchpotch and yakitori at local food stands.
"When Mr. Honda and Mr. Fujisawa first met," Nishida said, "they would go everywhere together like a couple of honeymooners. This was because they were eager to get to know each other and debate the issues. And within about seven years of the company's founding they had come up with a concrete representation of Honda's corporate philosophy. So, just as they had done in their own way, we did in our case, debating a great variety of issues and getting to know one another's personalities."
The question had indeed served its purpose, for in time the young directors grew confident that they could carry on the Honda business as opinion leaders in the boardroom.