The Shihan, or tea mistress, lovingly rotates the 200-year-old clay cup in her hands. A scrutinizing look. She rotates it again and inspects the treasure. Then she pauses, a brief satisfied look flitting across her face. During the more than 500-year-old Japanese tea ceremony, each hand movement is prescribed. It takes about ten long years of learning about the many different aspects of Japanese culture and a lot of practice before she passes to become a Shihan. Tradition, rules, the search for perfection in both the big and small things in life: this is Japan. These values are internalized at a very young age. Gaikokujin, or foreigners, are largely unaware of how important rituals, precise procedures, and processes are and how intensely they are practiced—that is, until they become a natural part of everyday Japanese life.

Turn, inspect—turn again and scrutinize once more. The polished piston goes through this procedure several times during its genesis. As with the Shihan, the hand movements here are also rehearsed, but have a significant meaning. Personal accountability is implied each time a piston is picked up. Because only absolutely perfect parts are permitted to leave the MAHLE plant in Tsuruoka/Japan. Deviations are inconceivable.

Even the slightest variation in color, which has nothing to do with its functionality, will not be accepted. Neither on the production line in Tsuruoka nor of course, by the Japanese customers. For they also expect absolutely perfect quality. And MAHLE in Tsuruoka delivers: zero defects. Day after day—all year long.


MAHLE has a long tradition of placing a high value on quality. “Good quality is of crucial importance. We can always do everything a little better!” was the motto of the company founder Ernst Mahle. Today, quality management using standardized tools and processes is integrated in all MAHLE business processes across the world—from product development to series launch and beyond. And, just as in Ernst Mahle’s days, lessons learned from all of our production locations are used to continuously improve all processes.

Quality, costs, delivery reliability: Japanese manufacturers use this triad to measure their suppliers. Like everywhere else in the world, actually. And yet: something is different. “Our customers trust our processes right down to the tiniest detail,” explains Plant Manager Hiroshi Ariji. His customers inquire about all the production steps and processes long before the start of production. This can sometimes be a tight balancing act, because the supplier obviously does not want to divulge all his business secrets. It is therefore always a particular honor when a foreign company is allowed to supply Japanese car manufacturers. All the more remarkable if this then evolves into long-term partnerships. “In the meantime, our customers see us more as a Japanese company than a German one,” notes Ariji, visibly satisfied. The figures substantiate the ongoing success story of his team: a good 85 percent of the trucks on Japan’s roads are powered by MAHLE pistons from Tsuruoka.

How do the employees implement the quality specifications? The Japanese customers look very closely at this area too. Because they know: the human is the decisive factor. This is also apparent in Tsuruoka. While robots are also in use here, turning, inspecting, turning again, and checking the semifinished parts, the community of flesh and blood is still way ahead of the machines: due to their long-standing experience, high sense of responsibility, and incredible tenaciousness. “On average, our employees have been working for the company for more than 25 years,” says Plant Manager Ariji, perhaps revealing the biggest secret behind the daily precision. They are well versed and skilled in every single hand movement.


Yuichi Kobayashi found out how crucial this detail can be. The MAHLE filter expert had the task of building a new production location for filters in Indonesia. “We adopted the technology from our plant in Tochigi. Nevertheless, there were significant differences. It was only then that I realized just how deeply ingrained and how perfectly our Japanese employees understood the processes and the importance of quality,” states the production manager. Takahisa Yamashita, responsible for the MAHLE Filtration and Engine Peripherals business unit in Japan, is not surprised by this finding. “Our employees are so attuned to one another, one glance is enough and the colleague knows what is meant,” he says, revealing another secret of the Japanese recipe for success.

And again a small ceremony. The teams in Tsuruoka use it to tune themselves in at the beginning of each shift. The colleagues gather in a semicircle as the group leaders provide them with information for that day: which of the 4,200 products are lined up, as well as important observations from the previous shift. This is followed by the daily reminder to observe the safety regulations. “Safety is as important to us as quality,” emphasizes Ariji. “Yoshi! Yoshi! Yoshi!— OK!,” chorus the team as they confirm the goals ahead. Each individual in the semicircle is aware that they are taking over responsibility for the community— and that nothing is allowed to go wrong.


On every shift, the teams also go to the next “gemba”, or the department next door, for a so-called “three- minute quality check.” Is there is something to improve or learn there? It is a finely spun network of test processes and communication at many different levels— always on the lookout to make things better. “Keizokuteki Kaizen,” or continuous improvement, is a term that has long been an integral part of the global production systems and has been implemented everywhere in the MAHLE world for many years. And yet: Japan, as the motherland of the Kaizen philosophy, continues to have that extra edge.

Change of location to MAHLE Tochigi. Drive two-and-a-half hours north of the metropolis of Tokyo and you will proudly be shown a long row of awards from Japanese customers. In Tochigi, oil filters, oil coolers, plastic cylinder head covers, and air intake systems, among others, are being produced for the MAHLE Filtration and Engine Peripherals business unit. Each hand movement of the nearly 320 employees here also often resembles a small ceremony. The young employee’s hands smoothly rotate a bright blue oil filter as she inspects the details. Because she knows: the customers will not even accept a printing error on a label. Here it is totally irrelevant whether this rather insignificant deviation can be detected in the assembled state later on or not.

Again this loving gaze. Just like the Shihan— the tea mistress. It only takes a blink of the eye, but is bestowed upon each individual filter. A short moment of personal attachment. “In Japan, we are trained from an early age to develop this special affinity to the things that we do. The teachers are strict and teach us the processes until they really stick,” explains Yamashita. “With Kaizen, we can develop processes until they are absolutely perfect. However, we sometimes find it difficult when taking an innovative or creative approach,” admits Yamashita modestly. He therefore deliberately encourages interaction with MAHLE colleagues in other countries. “We need to be more agile. We can learn this from our colleagues all over the world to get even better on a continuing basis.” And they in turn visit the Japanese MAHLE plants on a regular basis in order to get a feel for this very special quality philosophy which also drives the entire MAHLE world along this path.

Video: MAHLE plant in Tsuruoka/Japan

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