An interesting thing happened on the way to perfection…
Toyota’s recall and reputation crisis seem to be getting worse day by day. This was a company so obsessed with making cars of unmatchable quality and reliability that they helped set a higher standard for the industry, compelling their competitors to follow. Relentless waste and defect reduction through process control and continuous improvement is their strength and sweet spot, and their comfort zone. This is the machine that helped change the world.
Now Toyota’s new challenge is one well outside their comfort zone. The relentless quality machine is now…well…human. And while they still need their best engineers focused on finding the root causes and developing and rolling out fixes, Toyota is challenged to regain the trust of a fearful owner body through all levels of communication – people communicating with people, not just a quality machine conducting a safety recall.
Humans have many things in common with each other (and not with machines):
• They are not perfect and make mistakes
• They can recognize their mistakes
• They can be humble and apologize
• They can correct their mistakes
• They can forgive each other
• They can learn from their mistakes and grow stronger
Japan is known to have a culture of external shame and the U.S. a culture of internal guilt. All people can forgive, and in the U.S. in particular we have lots of comeback stories of fallen heroes who admit their mistakes and get back on track. For this process to start, people need to hear from the Toyota family at the top of the house. Much like Bill Ford was front and center at the Firestone/Explorer crisis, Toyota President and founding family member Akio Toyoda needs to be out front on this one as well. This is a global issue so the responsibility rolls up to the top.
Ultimately, brands and reputations are based on trust. Toyota built the highest measure of trust in its quality reputation – customer confidence in what they felt were vehicles that could not fail. Customer trust and confidence shifted quickly to fear of driving of driving their Toyotas. They need to know the man at the top is behind them and will relentlessly get to the root cause of every problem and fix it, and that he takes responsibility for their driving safety.
The reputation will take considerable time to rebuild. When Toyota is not out ahead of this one and the crisis escalates at internet speed, others take control of the brand. When Toyota silence is filled with the voices of Ray LaHood, Steve Wozniak, Diane Sawyer, Jon Stewart, and David Letterman, the brand is being reshaped at internet speed – while other OEMs offer Toyota conquest incentives. Tiger Woods can empathize – he did not get out of ahead of his crisis and it reached unprecedented proportions. When he comes back, it will require a new level of humility and remorse to begin to repair the reputation damage.
So it is time for Toyota’s President to:
• Step up – Provide a sincere and complete apology, address the issues head on continue the efforts to get all your customers’ vehicles fixed.
• Step out – Be visible regularly – this won’t be solved by a single press conference. Use digital and social media to proactively and sincerely communicate with concerned customers and other constituents.
• Step forward – You have not found all the issues, root causes and fixes yet – electronic interference issues will be a great engineering challenge. Get out ahead and use Toyota’s engineering and quality strengths to become the best at early detection and correction of dynamic issues in your rolling owner fleet. Get ahead of the train and communicate proactively because it is way ahead of you right now.
• Step into the future – Innovate in ways that will prevent this happening in the future with things like satellite based diagnostics that will tell you which vehicles at most at risk for a failure and should be brought into the dealership right away. Just think of the savings of money and lives in finding and fixing these issues months ahead of time.
For advice on communicating to customers – why not talk to your dealers? They have been ahead of the game because customers have been coming to them for months. They are admirably representing Toyota as they talk to the news network interviews on the crisis. Your best customer satisfaction dealers know how to address these issues with customers with empathy and action – they always have and always will, with extended service hours and whatever it takes. They are on the front lines of this crisis, talking to panicked Toyota customers and fixing cars. Give them all the support they need, because they are the hospitals for sick vehicles and frightened customers and their emergency rooms are full.
I know there are some great stories out there of Toyota dealers stepping up to handle this crisis. Please share in response to this posting some of the best practices you have seen out there so other Toyota dealers can see them.
It will be a long journey to restore the reputation, but a journey that can only happen step by step – with human feet.