Toyota: Quality is Job Two
Japanese society is known for its rigid social stratification. Depending on the listener’s relative status, there are four ways to say “this is a book." Individuals within this system are well aware that anyone who moves upwards from their "natural" place in the pecking order risks ridicule, jealousy and attack. Hence the ancient Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down." Automotively- speaking, Toyota is the tall nail these days, and boy, is it getting hammered.
Earlier this year, Toyota passed General Motors as the world’s largest automaker. Last month, Toyota’s U.S. operations ended Ford’s 76-year reign as America’s second biggest automaker. If you’re wondering why Toyota hasn’t celebrated these accomplishments with a bit of good old American swagger, see paragraph one. The Japanese carmaker knows it’s in the crosshairs. For now, the company figures that silence is the better part of valor.
The problem is simple: Toyota’s reputation exceeds them. The automaker is famous for building vehicles that never break, rust, fail or fall apart. Automobiles that are so well-built they’ve stood the old ‘70’s idea that “made in Japan” means cheap on its head. Toyota’s reliability rep is so strong that a disgruntled aircraft owner recently evoked the company’s mythical mechanical prowess on an internet forum: “I want Toyota to make a single engine piston [airplane].”
For some time, domestic supporters have been trying to tell American consumers to stop drinking the Toyota Kool Aid. Citing independent surveys, they claim The Big 2.8 have narrowed the quality gap to the point where it’s statistically meaningless, making the discrepancy a matter of [misinformed] perception. More to the point, they say the Japanese company is no stranger to product delays and recalls, and mechanical issues. Which is true.
While Toyota’s design, parts and production process remains second to none, carmaking is such a vastly complex business, and Toyota such a vast enterprise, that mistakes are inevitable. No carmaker– or car– is perfect. Toyota’s recent problems with the new Tundra pickup’s defective camshafts illustrate the simple fact that shit happens– especially when you’re building a new product in a new factory using new suppliers.
Still, there’s no question that Toyota’s rapid expansion in the North American market is giving the company growing pains– or should I say, continuing to challenge the storied Toyota Production System. Ironically enough, Toyota is suffering from a perception gap. Their quality problems are not significantly worse than before, but the company’s newly assumed tall poppy status makes them seem so. Simply put, people are paying attention.
Well, the media is, as witnessed by the relatively prominent play given the Tundra screw-up. That said, it would take at least a decade of crap Toyota products and bullet-proof Detroit metal to reverse the curse. And no matter what The Big 2.8 do or don’t do, Toyota is not about to let its products suffer from endless rounds of mechanical mishaps and expensive recalls.
Toyota is taking radical action to sort out its North American quality woes. The company is currently retraining ALL of its North American assembly workers. This “back to basics” course is designed to identify and correct defective working practices and highlight the need for increased front line vigilance. At the same time, Toyota is devolving decision-making powers and back office support from its Erlanger, Kentucky headquarters to regional centers in California and Texas.
Anyone who thinks Toyota will ease-up on its commitment to product quality, brand integrity and customer satisfaction is delusional. The automaker is nowhere near the peak of its global or national ambitions, and they know exactly what they have to do to get there. And make no mistake: Toyota’s current production problems are NOT a reflection of corporate hubris. They're a direct result of their desire to keep a low profile. To avoid the hammer.
How’s this for an inconvenient truth: building vehicles abroad would be the easiest way for Toyota to assure product quality and increase profits. They refrain from doing so for political reasons. The Japanese automaker knows that their top dog status makes them the logical scapegoat for failing American automakers. Planting factories on U.S. soil at least partially protects them from the slings and arrows of outraged patriots.
Speaking to Automotive news, management guru Jim Womack went further. The co-author of a seminal book on Toyota’s lean, mean production machine claims that the American political landscape makes it difficult for Toyota to be Toyota.
"The short-term rate of expansion in the States is not being driven by long-term judgment about what is truly best for the business as a business," Womack said. "Rather, it's being driven by an assessment of what is necessary for the company due to short-term politics.
“Toyota is terrified that it will be blamed for the collapse of Ford and the potential collapse of Chrysler, followed by GM."
If you were wondering how such a successful automaker could have such a paranoid corporate culture, it's best to think of Toyota's psychology as the reverse of Abraham "hierarchy of needs" Maslow's aphorism. When you're a nail, everything looks like a hammer.
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