Correction Appended: February 24, 2010
What's wrong with Toyota?
Not much. At least not from an engineering, mechanical or even a quality point of view. You don't reach the top gear in the global auto industry unless you make outstanding cars, which Toyota does — most of the time. Though cars are familiar machines, they are also highly complex ones. To create a modern car, a company has to design, engineer, build, buy and then assemble some 10,000 parts. Sell 7.8 million cars, as Toyota did worldwide in 2009 — a horrible year for the industry — and there are billions of new parts with the potential to go kerflooey. Inevitably, some do.
What makes the recall since November of nearly 9 million Toyotas that are susceptible to uncontrolled acceleration and balky brakes such a shocking story is not so much the company's manufacture of some shoddy cars or even its dreadful crisis management — though those are errors that will cost it more than $2 billion in repairs and lost sales this year. It's something more pernicious: the vapor lock that seems to have seized Toyota's mythologized corporate culture and turned one of the most admired companies in the world into a bunch of flailing gearheads. Not only is Toyota producing more flawed cars than in the past, but an organization known for its unrivaled ability to suss out problems, fix them and turn them into advantages is looking clueless on all counts. (See the 50 worst cars of all time.)
Although the recalls seemed sudden, the evidence has been piling up. Literally. According to a report from Massachusetts-based Safety Research & Strategies (SRS), a consumer-advocacy group, there was a spike in the number of unintended-acceleration incidents in some Toyota vehicles in 2002, about the same time that Toyota introduced its electronic throttle control. The problem was initially blamed on a floor mat or vehicle trim that, if it came loose, could jam the accelerator pedal in an open-throttle position. That was followed by the first of several National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigations, in 2003, and two small recalls in 2005 and 2007. But accidents mounted, and last November the company had to take back nearly 3.8 million U.S. Vehicles — its biggest-ever recall — to address the problem.
Modifying the floor mats, though, didn't fix things. Toyota at first refused to believe that there was a mechanical problem with its pedals, blaming customers for improperly installing the floor mats. But by the time Toyota got around to a second recall, on Jan. 21, this one of 2.3 million vehicles, its reputation was in tatters. (See the top 10 product recalls.)
There was no place left to park the blame. The company backhandedly singled out a U.S. Partsmaker — CTS Corp., of Elkhart, Ind. — as the supplier of defective pedals while exonerating a Japanese company, Denso, that makes the same part. But CTS CEO Vinod M. Khilnani wasn't about to take the fall. He says his company met Toyota's engineering specifications and notes that the recalls tied to unintended acceleration extend to vehicles built as long ago as 2002. "CTS didn't become a Toyota supplier until 2005," he says.
There was more to come. In early February, Toyota managed to back over any remaining political goodwill it had when it voluntarily recalled more than 400,000 Prius and other hybrid cars — this time, to update software in the antilock brake system that could cause a glitch if the car traveled over a bumpy surface. The Lexus is Toyota's top-selling luxury model — bad enough — but the Prius is its darling, a car that demonstrated the company's ability to solve technical issues that kept other automakers from fielding gas-electric hybrids, at the same time clinching Toyota's green cred. Only last month at the Detroit Auto Show, executives described the Prius as the cornerstone of Toyota's future growth. Toyota planned to sell a million hybrids a year globally, most of them in North America.
As Toyota dithered, it lost hold of the wheel. Lawyers and politicians took charge. In Washington, Toyota executives are poised to replace bankers as populist targets before a congressional hearing. "Toyota drivers have gone from being customers of the company to being wards of the government," says Jim Cain, senior vice president of Quell Group, a marketing-communications firm in Detroit, and a former Ford media-relations executive. "It's absolutely the worst possible position to be in." Tort lawyers around the U.S. have filed class actions. SRS says it has identified 2,262 instances of unintended acceleration in Toyotas leading to at least 819 crashes and 26 deaths since 1999.
At Toyota dealerships, meanwhile, customers have had to haul their cars in to have the sticky gas pedals repaired. Loyal Toyota owners now have a reason to flirt with other brands, though switching could cost them: trade-in prices for Toyotas have fallen. And at global headquarters in Toyota City, Japan, corporate officers belatedly grasped the seriousness of the situation and tried to make amends. "I apologize from the bottom of my heart for all the concern that we have given to so many of our customers," a chastened Akio Toyoda, grandson of the corporation's legendary founder, Kiichiro Toyoda, told reporters in Nagoya, taking the requisite deep bow of the disgraced.
The Little Company That Could
So what happened? What went awry at the car company whose widely admired Toyota Production System (TPS) had made it the paragon of the art of manufacturing?
The reputation for quality that Toyota has damaged in just a few months took decades to build. Though Toyota was founded in the 1930s, its climb to global prominence started after World War II as the company became one of the exemplars of Japan's miracle — the creation of a successful, technologically advanced economy out of the ashes of war. In the 1950s, the company experimented with ways to manufacture cars more efficiently. Ironically, Japan's awful postwar poverty acted as a spur. The production techniques of American car companies — with heaps of stored components awaiting assembly, and ample machinery to do it — was just too wasteful and expensive for Japan. Toyota had to learn to do more with less. The result was TPS — or, more generically, lean manufacturing. Inventories were all but eliminated by employing just-in-time delivery techniques, in which suppliers brought components to the assembly line only when needed.
One organizing philosophy behind TPS is popularly ascribed to a concept called kaizen — Japanese for "continuous improvement." In practice, it's the idea of empowering those people closest to a work process so they can participate in designing and improving it, rather than, say, spending every shift merely whacking four bolts to secure the front seat as each car moves down the line. Continuous improvement constantly squeezes excess labor and material out of the manufacturing process: people and parts meet at the optimal moment. Kaizen is also about spreading what you've learned throughout the system. And then repeating it. It's the reason, for instance, that when Toyota assumed full control of the New United Motor Manufacturing plant in Fremont, Calif., which it had co-owned with GM, it got way more productivity and quality out of it than GM could with essentially the same workforce and equipment. (See the most exciting cars of 2010.)
Sakichi Toyoda developed another concept, jidoka, or "automation with a human touch." Think of it as built-in stress detection. At Toyota, that means work stops whenever and wherever a problem occurs. (Any employee can pull a cord to shut down the line if there is a problem.) That way, says Steven Spear of MIT, author of Chasing the Rabbit: How Market Leaders Outdistance the Competition and an expert in the dynamics of high-performance companies, "When I see something that's not perfect, I call it out, figure out what it is that I don't know and convert ignorance to knowledge."
That was the idea. But the fact that Toyota has produced so many imperfect cars is evidence that its system developed faults. Management experts like John Paul MacDuffie, a co-director of the International Motor Vehicle Program (IMVP) at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, place the blame on the company's headlong growth in the past 10 years. In 2000, Toyota produced 5.2 million cars; last year it had the capacity to make 10 million. Since 2000, when Toyota had 58 production sites, it has added 17. In that time, in other words, Toyota has added the capacity of a company virtually the size of Chrysler in a stated ambition to become the world's No. 1 auto company. (See pictures of Japanese design's greatest hits.)
But rapid expansion puts enormous pressure on any company's ability to transmit know-how and technology, especially over long distances and across national cultures. When Toyota opened its Georgetown, Ky., plant in 1988, hundreds of work-team specialists and other experts were transplanted from Japan for several years to make sure the new plant fully absorbed the Toyota way. That kind of hand-holding may still be possible, but it isn't as easy. How can that be fixed? Says Spear: "The big deal is this question, Does an organization know how to hear and respond to weak signals, which are the problems, or does it have to hear strong signals? You have to listen to weak signals. By the time you get to strong signals, it's too late."
When weak signals started coming out in 2002, Toyota's top management wasn't listening. By then, the heroic stage of Japan Inc. was over; parts of its business culture had become sclerotic. Compared with the nimbleness seen in Silicon Valley, Japan's manufacturers and their systems began to be seen as inflexible, too removed from a changing global economy to adapt. Analysts describe a Toyota management team that had fallen in love with itself and become too insular to properly handle something like the current crisis. "The reaction to [the situation] is a very Japanese thing," says Kenneth Grossberg, a marketing professor at Waseda University's business school in Tokyo. Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan, says Toyota's managers don't understand how sensitive the American public is to auto-safety issues. "Their focus on the customer has been nonexistent," he says. "Toyota is famous for having an arrogant culture. They're so used to dealing with successes that when they have a problem, they're not sure how to respond."
Kingston puts his finger on one failing in modern Japanese corporations like Toyota: those lower in the organization find it difficult to deliver bad news to managers. Nearly every company faces this issue from time to time. "But this is a brand-threatening, life-endangering crisis," he says. Changing the way Toyota works won't be easy, says Grossberg. "Management cannot turn on a dime. They have so much invested in doing things the Toyota way," he says.
How to Lose Influential Friends
The recalls came at time when Toyota was regaining momentum after losing $4.9 billion in its latest fiscal year, as recession-racked consumers parked their money. For much of the past year, hundreds of Toyota employees in the U.S. didn't build cars at all, instead attending classes or doing "maintenance" work on half-built vehicles at idled factories in Texas and Indiana. Toyota kept the workers on in anticipation of better times ahead. Now the company is looking at another year of losses and significant overcapacity in North America.
Read more: http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1963595,00.html#ixzz0hHbsF8EB
Toyota's Management Challenge
To the dismay of its growing chorus of critics, Toyota Motor (TM) continued to insist this week that its electronic throttle control isn't to blame for any unintended acceleration in its cars. But what the company has readily conceded—and what Peter Drucker would have surely seen as the key to its hoped-for resurgence—is that it needs to get a much better handle on another type of control system: that by which the entire enterprise manages the reliability of its products.
"We are fundamentally overhauling Toyota's quality assurance process…from vehicle planning and design to manufacturing, sales, and service," Shinichi Sasaki, an executive vice-president, told a Senate committee.
Given the pleasure that some lawmakers and news outlets seem to be taking in Toyota's fall, it would be easy to dismiss Sasaki's comments as empty rhetoric or to overlook them altogether. At the same time, Toyota hasn't done itself any favors with some of its behavior. The company's now-infamous "safety wins" presentation—in which it boasted of having saved $100 million by averting a full-blown recall of 50,000 sedans—has only helped fuel the tar-and-feather-them attitude that many have adopted.
Yet the steps that Sasaki outlined—and that have been echoed by others, including Toyota President Akio Toyoda—are anything but hollow or trivial. For they get right to the heart of a question that Drucker thought every company needs to rigorously address: What set of "controls" will provide the utmost "control"?
"The synonyms for controls are measurement and information," Drucker wrote in his 1973 book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. "The synonym for control is direction. …Controls deal with facts, that is, with events of the past. Control deals with expectations, that is, with the future. Controls are analytical, concerned with what was and is. Control is normative and concerned with what ought to be."
Drucker explained that to give a manager proper control, controls must satisfy a number of criteria, including several that Toyota seems to be zeroing in on. For example, the company has pledged to increase its collection of consumer complaints and to then respond to them more quickly than in the past by deploying "SWAT teams" of technicians. It has also vowed to give its executives in the U.S. and other regions across the globe a greater voice in safety-related decisions. Until now, such authority has resided largely in Japan.
Drucker, having stressed the need for controls "to be timely," would undoubtedly have favored these moves. But what may be most crucial here is the way that Toyota is positioning itself to meet another one of his specifications: "Controls," Drucker wrote, "must be operational. They must be focused on action."
In a day-to-day context, Drucker added, "this means that controls—whether reports, studies, or figures—must always reach the person who is capable of taking controlling action. Whether they should reach anyone else, and especially someone higher up, is debatable. But their prime addressee is the manager or professional who can take action by virtue of his position in the flow of work. …This further means that the measurement must be in a form that is suitable for the recipient and tailored to his needs."
More Than Just Data-Tracking
There is more, as well. "Controls," Drucker wrote, "have to be appropriate to the character and nature of the phenomena measured."
Toyota, for its part, seems to be cognizant of this danger. Rather than just paying attention to "technical and regulatory considerations" going forward, Sasaki said, "we need to do more to consider customer expectations and real-world usage of our vehicles, even irregular use."
Another Drucker insight: "Control is a principle of economy. The less effort needed to gain control, the better the control design." One imagines that Toyota had this very notion in mind when it committed to Congress that it would go beyond the use of Event Data Recorders—the so-called automotive black box—and "improve our vehicle diagnostic tools."
Finally, there is Akio Toyoda's promise to push senior managers to actually drive those cars in which troubles have surfaced. "I believe that only by examining the problems on-site can one make decisions from the customer perspective," he said. "One cannot rely on reports or data in a meeting room."
Such sentiments speak directly to a big concern that Drucker had about controls: their tendency to be inward-looking. "The central problem of the executive in the large organization is his…insulation from the outside," Drucker asserted. "This applies to the president of the United States as well as to the president of United States Steel. What today's organization therefore needs are synthetic sense organs for the outside."
In his testimony on Capitol Hill and in other recent remarks, Toyoda acknowledged that his company became preoccupied with precisely the wrong metrics: market share and short-term profitability. By enhancing its controls around safety and dependability, the automaker is sending a powerful message to all of its employees about what really matters.
Drucker, whose teachings have had a great influence on Toyota, noted that the mere act of measuring something is "neither objective nor neutral." For "no matter how 'scientific' we are are," he wrote, "the fact that this or that set of phenomena is singled out for being controlled signals that it is…considered to be important." In this way, Drucker concluded, controls in any company are both "goal-setting and value-setting."
In the end, this is what's most significant about the overhaul that Toyota is undertaking: It recognizes that regaining control of the company's gas pedals and brakes cannot be achieved without also regaining control of its values.