Soichiro Honda

Dreamer, maverick, and a man who loved machines
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Soichiro Honda created a motor vehicle industry when it should have been impossible. The time for that was the turn of the century, when Ford, Peugeot, and Daimler were created. Shipbuilding magnate Henry J. Kaiser tried to break into the auto business in 1947, and lasted only a decade. The territory was taken, transportation was a mature industry, and its giants wanted no new competitors. By mid-century, one man could no longer create such a manufacturing empire.

Yet Honda did. It's easy to say that postwar Japan needed transportation, and Honda seized the moment. Yet so did many others, and where are they today? Japan had its own established giants, but Honda somehow made himself their equal.

This man, despite being a results-oriented pragmatist who suffered no fools gladly, was driven at the core by a dream. He was born at the junction of old and new, as Japan swept from agriculture to manufacturing. Strong contrasts filled his early life, as this blacksmith's son gazed with wonder at the future's new machines--engines, pumps and airplanes. Young Soichiro ran after the first car he saw, savoring its exotic breath. He dreamed of transcending the dusty road with machines that moved, that multiplied human abilities. And machinery made sense to him. Book-learning did not. He couldn't wait for school diplomas to unlock his future--he plunged into practical work with cars and engines.

Honda knew his own countrymen well enough to lead them, and he sought in others talents he himself did not have. He was no isolated engineering nerd, dreaming in private. Honda demanded practical results, and he found a way of working that brought those results. He learned to regard failures as necessary steps toward understanding. He instilled in others the drive to learn without fear of failure. Such was the road to success.

A motor vehicle empire is not created simply by acts of will or diligence. Honda discovered, with his attempts to make piston rings in 1937, that the physical world doesn't yield its secrets to effort alone. Its complexity requires study. Honda went back to school to add the insights of metallurgy to guide his hundreds of experiments. Work and study brought success, so that when he produced his first postwar motor-bicycles, he knew the value of continuous reinvestment in technology.

It was not enough to have a good idea, a strong will and a willingness to put in the hours. If you made a product no better and no worse than your competitor's, the customer had no reason to prefer yours. But reinvestment in technology offered something different--a way to grow ideas into useful new things that people would want. Japan's impressive heavy industries had emerged during Honda's youth, but he knew it would take something more to succeed in the turbulent 1950s.

Honda learned to reach goals by breaking with tradition and accepted views that stood between himself and his goals. His novel way of seeing the world owed much to his playful sense of humor. Learning early and through hard apprenticeship that unconventional ideas could work, he applied this directness to everything in his life. He showed famous disrespect for status, believing that work dignifies the workman, and that therefore work clothes and cap were equally appropriate for financial meetings or shop visits. He expected to be judged by his actions, not by the cut of his suit, and applied the same standard to his associates. Knowing himself, he knew that people of any education or background could have useful ideas.

Soichiro Honda's unconventional ways became the company's personality because he did not pursue the socially correct compromise path of consensus decision-making. He was everywhere in the flesh, checking the progress of R&D projects, visiting production shops, helping workers assemble an engine, injecting his own views, asking questions. Honda's way was to overturn the conventional to seek ideas so simple that traditional thinkers had overlooked them. In Soichiro Honda's view, engineering was not just applied science; it was imagination made real and useful. What do you need? We'll make it.

To make these things, Honda also changed marketing methods, and manufacturing. High quality comes from a creative combination of design for use and design for manufacturing, all aimed to hit a specific market need. A product that can be made in easy steps can be made well, and a product that does its job reliably pleases its users.

The step-through Honda Cub® was the first international success for the Honda® Motor Company, and it was a model for all the successes that were to follow. Recognize a need, create a unique way to satisfy it, incorporate unusual performance, quality and reliability, then build from an expanding reputation into yet other areas. This pattern defined the Honda Way. A need was recognized, and after trial and error, the trouble-free, easy-to-operate 50cc Cub was created.

Marketing targeted the general public with good, clean two-wheeled fun, and introduced millions to motorcycling. When the market was saturated, Honda had the vision to see that a similarly trouble-free kind of sports motorcycle could become equally popular, building on the proven reputation of the Cub. As that success expanded into many countries, Honda expanded its line, always offering customers a step up to more sophisticated models. Soon thereafter came auto production, and the rest of the story is familiar recent history.

The most difficult problems--those shunned by competitors--have been tackled by Honda engineers who know this is the best way to be prepared for the future. From the beginning, Honda sought the challenge of racing, and when his motorcycles won their first Grand Prix road racing title in 1961, the new company's engineering power was demonstrated to the world. Since then, racing has remained a valued element in Honda's development process. From Honda's continuing research and development, a long succession of technological triumphs has resulted--the low-emissions engines, variable valve timing, the latest lean-burn combustion system and minimalist alloy chassis are only a few. Because of work of this kind, Honda products are not commodities. They are unique.

This success was no accident. Soichiro Honda invented himself by hard trial and error, to succeed in difficult, fluid times. His company became an extension of himself, displaying his qualities, employing his methods. Honda's unconventional personality was an essential adaptation to an era of unpredictable, accelerating change, enabling the company, like the man, to make room for itself among less agile giants, to take and hold its place in history as a pioneer.

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