After piles of books have been written about the „Toyota Way,“ this round of recalls will have a permanent place in the annals of how to completely NSFW-up crisis management. The epicenter of the disaster at Toyota is not in the pedal dept., it is not in the software development dept., it is in the Public Relations Department in Toyota City. Or possibly, right at the top.
Last Friday evening, Toyota trotted out their CEO and founder’s grandson Akio Toyoda to address the complaints about Prius brakes. Toyoda said nothing of substance. What irked the public, and what became instant fuel to the already raging fire, was that Akio Toyoda refused to address the fact that Toyota had changed the Prius software, and changed the braking hardware in January, for cars in production. People wanted to know what happens with the cars they had already bought. Akio Toyoda left his customers in a lurch. Answering in very bad English instead through an interpreter made matters worse.
A day later, Reuters wrote that Toyota will recall the Prius “in the next few days.” Who was the source? A Toyota spokesperson? Nah. A “person close to the matter?” Nope. The source was a Toyota car dealer. “Toyota officials were not immediately available to comment.”
Today, the Nikkei [sub] writes that Toyota “has decided to recall and repair free of charge the latest model of its Prius hybrid sold in the domestic market due to complaints over brake problems.” And who’s the source? A Toyota spokesperson? Nah.
This time it’s “sources close to the matter.” The Nikkei says that Toyota “is expected to report the plan to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry early this week, before announcing it to the public.”
In another report, the Nikkei cited another anonymous source that said “Toyota also intends to take similar steps in the U.S. and other overseas markets simultaneously, but didn’t elaborate.”
Still, mum’s the word from Toyota.
Japan’s transport minister doesn’t need a report. Japanese transport minister Seiji Maehara, had already said last Friday that Toyota will carry out either a recall or voluntary repair over brake problems with the Prius. Toyota wasn’t listening.
Last week, Japan’s Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Masayuki Naoshima said he hopes Toyota will respond to the situation ”as soon as possible.” Toyota wasn’t listening. Maybe because Naoshima had been a lower level employee at Toyota, then rose through the ranks of the unions before taking up a successful career in politics.
There are louder and louder voices in Japan, warning that its industry is losing its edge. Korea’s Samsung has pushed aside the Japanese to become the world’s top maker of LCD TVs. Sony has become famous for its “Sony timer.” According to Japanese lore, it’s a device in every Sony product that causes it to break once the warranty expired. “The auto sector and Toyota is our last hope to maintain a very strong brand image and market position for Japanese companies,” said Tatsuya Mizuno, founder of credit ratings firm Mizuno Credit Advisory. “But when we look at this situation at Toyota, we may lose that last hope.”
Akio Toyoda had his chance last Friday night to get in front of the news and to shape the message. He blew his chance. Instead, Toyota has turned into a mass producer of confusion.