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Chika Kako: Toyota’s (and Lexus’) first-ever female Chief Engineer

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At the Southern Automotive Media Association (SAMA)’s 27 February 2014 luncheon / short-lead press preview for the 3rd-generation Toyota Highlander, some of the attendees lamented the perceived lack of female leadership at carmakers’ upper echelons, and asked if Toyota was planning to do anything in this regard. Surely, this was spurred by Mary Barra‘s groundbreaking ascension to the position of Chief Executive Officer of General Motors. At GM, this was preceded by Susan Docherty‘s rise to the President & Managing Director of Chevrolet/Cadillac Europe position before her departure in September 2013 and Anne Asensio‘s holding the Executive Director of Advanced Design position until 2007. At crosstown Ford, Elena Ford, great-great granddaughter of company founder Henry Ford, is currently Vice President, Global Dealer and Consumer Experience; and among other prominent female leaders at the carmaker are Barb J. Samardzich, currently Chief Operating Officer, Ford of Europe and Nancy Gioia, director of Global Electrification.

But what about Toyota? Is it too much an integral part of traditional, old-school Japan, Inc. where it is difficult for even a non-Japanese male, let alone a female of whatever nationality, to rise to upper corporate positions? Is it behind even its compatriots Nissan (led by the Lebanese-Brazilian Carlos Ghosn) and Mazda (which has, in the past, been led by Scotland’s Henry Wallace and Americans James E. Miller and Mark Fields)? A cursory glance at Toyota’s latest round of Executive, Organizational and Personnel Changes reveals a number of non-Japanese male names such as Mark Hogan (member of the board of directors), Jim Lentz (CEO, North America Region), Didier Leroy (CEO, Europe Region), Steve St. Angelo (CEO, Latin America & Caribbean Region) and Mark Templin (Lexus International’s executive vice president), with nary a female name in sight.

Nevertheless, I felt compelled to raise my hand and lamely say that I’d heard from a company insider that an upcoming Toyota vehicle would feature the carmaker’s first-ever female chief engineer, even though for the life of me I couldn’t recall the model in question, let alone when this would actually happen. Barely 2 weeks later, the Lexus Enthusiast blog provided the answer I’d fumbled over: Chika Kako‘s work on the 2014 model year mid-life refresh of the Lexus CT 200h C-segment hybrid hatchback made her the Lexus brand’s (and Toyota’s as a whole) first-ever female chief engineer. The news actually originated with an interview by Eliott Farr of the official Lexus United Kingdom blog, through which we learned that Kako-san’s chief emphasis was in reducing the continuously-variable transmission (CVT)’s noise levels; improving ride, handling and fuel economy (although U.S. EPA-estimated fuel economy numbers remain unchanged at 43 mpg city / 40 mpg highway / 42 mpg combined for 2014); and lowering CO2 emissions numbers that form the basis of numerous European taxation schemes.

The Lexus Europe newsroom informs us that

The new CT 200h combines increased body rigidity, suspension revisions and enhanced aerodynamics with comprehensive NVH (Noise, Vibration and Harshness) measures to offer a more refined, comfortable driving experience and an even quieter cabin environment…

Increased body rigidity has allowed for suspension re-tuning. Coil spring rates have been optimised, a new shock absorber valve adopted, and the rear stabiliser bar diameter altered to enhance ride comfort with no loss of handling agility.

The hybrid drive system’s transmission control has been re-mapped. A more linear build-up of engine revs now more closely matches the increase in vehicle speed to create a driving experience more akin to that of a conventional automatic transmission.

A subsequent Lexus Europe news release provides more detail:

Body rigidity has been improved through the adoption of 20 additional spot welds around the tailgate aperture and extensive use of structural adhesive technology throughout the lower body shell…

Complementing the inherent quietness of the Lexus Hybrid Drive powertrain, no less than 94 separate measures have been adopted to further reduce NHV and, specifically, the intrusion of mid- to high-frequency noise into the cabin.

A new Lexus hybrid first inlet duct design combines a highly porous material with the world’s first silencer plate, combining improved quietness with a pleasing intake air sound.

The position and weight of the rear engine mount damper has been optimised and the holes in a thicker, expanded dashboard silencer filled, reducing engine noise. Sound absorbing rear wheel arch liners and new front fender separators combat road noise intrusion into the cabin.

The rigidity of the performance damper mounting brackets has also been increased, helping to suppress bodyshell vibrations.

The United Kingdom’s Autocar adds that structural adhesive and spot welds joining the panels around the base of the A-pillars are yet another source of NVH reduction, as is a revised and quieter intake system.

chika kako 4Chika Kako’s background
Chika Kako joined the Toyota Motor Corporation in 1989 as a material engineer and, as such, was responsible for developing interior, exterior and sound-proofing materials, as well as solving specific issues such as fogging or odor problems in vehicle interiors. In 2000 she was part of a team of 6 engineers filing a patent for a unique thermoplastic olefin elastomer composition (which was issued in 2004) and, as part of a separate team of 6 engineers wrote an SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) technical paper on recycling technology of surface material for interior trims.

After prodding Toyota managers both in Japan and Belgium, she became the first woman in the company’s Research & Development department to be posted overseas at Toyota Motor Europe’s Technical Centre in Zaventem, Belgium in 2001. There, Kako-san worked on a special project to enhance the perceived and sensory quality of interiors using Kansei (emotional or affective) engineering principles.

Returning to Japan in 2004, she transferred to the Lexus Brand Planning department before being assigned to Lexus Product Planning, where she worked on the IS and was the assistant chief engineer for the current 3rd-generation (AL10) RX.

Building upon what Osamu (Sam) Sadakata started
Engineering and design work on the Lexus CT 200h originally started in 2006 under the stewardship of Osamu (Sam) Sadakata, Lexus’ most experienced hybrid model chief engineer, having previously done the honors for the RX 400h variant of the 2nd-generation RX (the brand’s first-ever hybrid) and the LS 600h top-of-the-line luxury sedan. (As an aside, yours truly had the privilege of meeting and chatting with Sadakata-san during the September 2010 Lexus CT long-lead press preview). Given his vast hybrid engineering experience, how daunted was Chika Kako by the task of, in essence, attempting to improve upon the master’s work? The Lexus UK blog interview is silent on the subject, but that is precisely the first question posed by Lexus of Spain in their official Estilo Lexus blog, in a 12 March 2014 Spanish-language interview titled Chika Kako, buscando el equilibrio (translatable as Chika Kako, seeking balance or Chika Kako, seeking equilibrium) that is, arguably, a more compelling read than its United Kingdom counterpart of sorts. And Kako-san’s reply?

Of course (it was difficult being his successor). Sadakata is a very experienced person and taking over his work has been a great responsibility. It hasn’t been easy, especially because I am originally a materials engineer, so I’ve needed to cover certain areas in which I’d never worked. It has been a great challenge for me.

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The other key interesting question-and-answer of the interview is this:

We know Japanese cultural idiosyncrasies insofar as women in the labor force. Could you tell us about the difficulties in leading this project being a woman?

I have been very lucky. I haven’t had great difficulties in that regard. On the other hand, I have had to make an extra effort given my particular area of expertise, since chief engineers usually come from fields such as chassis design and prototype development. These areas are very closely connected to the vehicle’s final production and thus more akin to the work of a chief engineer. In my case, I’ve always dedicated myself to the basic study of materials. While materials are a very important aspect of a vehicle’s production, if we take the final product into account, one needs other types of knowledge. I think that, in those fields, my expertise was insufficient.

There have been difficulties, but I have always attempted to listen to each area of production, as well as understanding and debating until being completely convinced that each aspect is right. For me, nevertheless, this has been more a challenge than a difficulty. Besides, most people are nicer and more polite towards women (laughs), so this has not been an aggravation in carrying out my work. I have been very fortunate.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Toyota is moving away from the current design and planning model where the original chief engineer “hands over” his team’s creation to another for the mid-life refresh in favor of one where the same chief engineer “stays” with the same vehicle throughout its entire life cycle. Also exemplifying this line of thinking is the way chief engineer Junichi Furuyama went straight from designing the Lexus IS C convertible to the 3rd-generation IS sedan; and how Lexus IS F chief engineer Yukihiko Yaguchi went on to create its successor of sorts, the RC F coupe. Might Chika Kako’s next career milestone, then, be creating the 2nd-generation Lexus CT line, possibly with sedan and enthusiast-oriented CT F variants?

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