By Yoko Kubota and Kentaro Sugiyama
TOKYO (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> will reshuffle its top executives as soon as this week, people familiar with the plan say, as President Akio Toyoda tries to dismantle a regimented decisionmaking hierarchy at the world's top-selling automaker.
Toyoda, who took the top job at the firm in 2009, has slashed the number of board directors and given more power to executives in key markets outside Japan as part of his effort to refocus the company on quality and manufacturing flexibility after a series of crises.
The next round of changes is intended to build on reforms made by the 56-year-old president which have helped Toyota regain its rank as the world's top selling car, and to fend off aggressive competition from its major rivals Volkswagen AG
In the upcoming shift, Toyoda wants to give managers lower down the corporate chain more authority to make day-to-day decisions, freeing the executive vice presidents to concentrate on strategic thinking, according to one source, who asked not to be named because the plans have not been announced.
"Personnel moves are announced when decisions have been made. We cannot comment on this matter, including the timing or the content," said Ryo Sakai, a Toyota spokesman.
The company has seven executive vice presidents who, besides overseeing operations in a particular market or markets, are in charge of one or more business areas such as production control, manufacturing, purchasing and accounting.
Toyoda wants his vice presidents to focus more on making broad decisions, according to a person briefed on his thinking.
At public events and company meetings since he took helm nearly four years ago, Toyoda has hammered out the message that the firm must focus on making "ever-better cars" and bringing excitement to its line-up rather than concentrating on shifting units, or short-term financial targets.
He wants his executives to have the same focus, people knowledgeable about the matter said.
As part of that approach, Toyoda has shaken up vehicle development by scrapping the consensus-based approach that delivered the conservative Camry, and encouraged designers to strike out for edgier looks like the Crown luxury sedan, which has been selling quickly in Japan since its December launch.
In the reshuffle, Vice Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada, who led the development of the Prius hybrid in the 1990s, is set to replace Chairman Fujio Cho, who has held the post since 2006, sources told Reuters.
Atsushi Niimi, an executive vice president since 2009 who oversees Toyota's two major markets in North America and China as well as manufacturing, is expected to be eased out of that role and into a group company, Japanese media have reported.
One of Niimi's innovations has been a more flexible manufacturing system that would allow the firm to shift output with relative ease after disasters like the 2011 earthquake in Japan, which is being introduced in plants globally.
Every year, Toyota discloses executive and organizational changes ahead of its annual shareholders' meeting in June. In the past two years it has made its announcement in early March.
Toyoda was stung by criticism that the company was too slow to respond to customer concerns after a wave of safety-related recalls that began shortly after he became president in 2009.
Since then Toyota has won back some of the ground on quality it lost during the recalls. In 2010, Toyota ranked 21 out of 33 brands in the Initial Quality survey by J.D. Power and Associates. Last year, it ranked No. 8.
The Toyota group in 2012 sold 9.75 million vehicles, outstripping GM and Volkswagen to rank as the world's best-selling automaker.
(Reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Daniel Magnowski)