An In Depth Look at Waigaya


Author: Jeffrey Rothfeder

Date Published: August 1st, 2014

Publisher: strategy+business


At the Japanese auto giant, unplanned, agenda-free meetings are ubiquitous and indispensable. When problems arise, Honda associates like to “get off the floor and talk about it.” Such unplanned, shapeless gatherings are the hallmark of the Honda Way. They are called waigaya, which isn’t a word in Japanese or any other language, but rather a name given them by Takeo Fujisawa, the business partner of company founder Soichiro Honda. He chose the word because to him the three syllables sounded like babble, the jabber of many people talking at the same time—Wai-ga-ya, wai-ga-ya, wai-ga-ya; in English, it could be hubbub. It is the noise of heated discussion and the free flow of ideas; it represents a battleground of facts and opinions—of chaotic communication, open disagreement, and inharmonious decision making.

Soichiro Honda famously said that success is 99 percent failure. And, in fact, Honda’s spontaneous, open meetings may have little value half the time, and often appear to be a waste of resources. But on the whole, in Honda Motor’s experience, waigaya leads directly to significant improvements in productivity, process, systems, and performance that would otherwise have been absent.

Waigaya comes in many forms. It can be a half-hour meeting on a specific problem that needs to be addressed immediately, or it can be a series of sessions that go on for weeks or months about a new factory under development or a vehicle model upgrade. Every department at Honda practices waigaya—sales and marketing, manufacturing, maintenance. As few as three people or as many as 20 may attend.

Although waigaya may seem too free-form to be productive and may appear to lack a leadership component strong enough to produce real results, these meetings actually have an organizing framework that, at least in theory, ensures their success. Indeed, the central tenets of Honda Motor’s waigaya approach can best be explained by four straightforward rules:

  1. Everybody is equal in waigaya, and all can express their thoughts with impunity.
  2. All ideas must be debated until they are either proven valid or rejected.
  3. Once a person shares an idea, he or she doesn’t own it anymore—it belongs to Honda, and the group can do with the idea what it will.
  4. At the end of waigaya, decisions and responsibilities are generated—a precise list of who is to do what, and by when.

When you ask people at Honda about their most memorable waigaya, they often recall individual dramatic incidents such as when the faulty Accord camshafts were replaced in Anna or the iconic TL tires were agreed upon. After all, these were explicit, identifiable moments when out of the ashes of desultory discussion—blah, blah, blah, waigaya, waigaya, waigaya—something truly useful emerged; a simple, quiet idea was hatched out of noise.

But waigaya are so second nature to Honda, so prevalent each day in every one of the company’s manufacturing facilities, research labs, design centers, and offices around the world, that they, in effect, take the place of watercooler discussions. Many waigaya occur daily but are continued over a period of time. Just as it’s hard for most of us to separate one casual workplace conversation from another, Honda employees may find it difficult to remember exactly who said what yesterday or last week at an ongoing waigaya. That’s why waigaya have their greatest impact: Once woven into the fabric of day-to-day activities, waigaya become increasingly spontaneous, candid, fearless, and unself-conscious—the very characteristics that Honda believes are necessary for practical new ideas to blossom.

As for how we may approach innovation and identifying the problem in this project, the concept of waigaya may in fact have some benefit as we progress through the research and development phase of the project. Perhaps as we continue to collaborate, especially with those from different disciplines, we can introduce the concept of waigaya and perhaps use it as a method to help solve problems and spur creativity within the group. It would also be useful in an organizational sense, especially when at the end of the waigaya, we would have decisions and responsibilities ready to be acted upon, so everyone would leave knowing what is expected of them for the next waigaya.

Rothfeder, J. (2014, August 1). For Honda, WAIGAYA is the way. strategy+business.