Archive for November 2009


“Stargazer, you with your head in the heavens …”

November 28th, 2009 — 2:05pm

Around this time every year, American manufacturers and retailers fill the airwaves with countless advertisements. A couple of days ago, I saw many from Toyota, touting the legendary quality of its cars. But for the first time in a long while these sounded hollow. Toyota has just announced yet another recall – affecting four million cars – for possible uncontrollable acceleration. The problem has resulted in a few deaths. I immediately told my wife, “This is Toyota’s “Audi moment.”

In the 1980s, Audi’s slogan was “The art of engineering” and its cars were doing very well in the premium/luxury segment. One year, some customers complained about accidents at start up; the cars moved before the drivers wanted to, often causing accidents. Audi denied the problem and blamed driver error. The media picked up the story and ultimately, the US government mandated a new safety feature for all cars: one cannot shift the gear to ‘Drive’ or ‘Reverse’ without having a foot on the brake. But by that time, Audi’s sales had plummeted – if I recall correctly – from about 50,000 a year to under 10,000. Audi’s reputation didn’t recover for many years.

I have long admired Toyota’s management prowess, and praised some of its policies and experiences in The Spider’s Strategy and in this blog. However, Toyota has clearly not learnt from Audi’s experiences. It first denied the problem and then blamed its customers. When it – very belatedly – acknowledged the issue, it said that the accelerator pedal was getting stuck on the mat and said that it would retrofit the existing pedals.

Toyota’s response is far from appropriate. It won’t be able execute the retrofitting till April 2010. What are the legions of Toyota customers supposed to do till then? Help slow global warming by not driving? Moreover, not everyone is convinced that the pedals are at fault; many blame a software malfunction. (This isn’t far fetched; in The Spider’s Strategy, I described earlier software problems in Toyota – and other high end cars – as one of the motivations for networked companies.) Toyota disagrees sharply – but nevertheless, is changing the software in some cars.

Toyota’s advertisements, reminded me of a Neil Diamond song: “Stargazer, you with your head in the heavens / You’ll never get by walkin’ that high off the ground / Moon dreamer, I’ve been around and I’ve seen it / The higher you get – the harder they let you down / You pay your dues, it seems forever /And if you’re clever you may be in for a while / Then you’re out of style/” I wondered why its executives didn’t realize that since quality is their claim to fame, a plausible challenge of that capability can be devastating. I also mused about the appropriateness of focusing advertisements on quality while a major recall is the lead news item on the evening news. Finally, I pondered why good executives don’t understand that blaming large numbers of customers is always a losing strategy in a crisis. Perhaps it is because they forget – with their “head in the heavens” – that they can’t afford to be “walkin’ that high off the ground.”

Only time will tell if Toyota is “out of style” now, having been “in for a while” because of its earlier “cleverness.” Recently, its new CEO, Akio Toyoda, apologized abjectly to shareholders and customers for Toyota’s many recent failings and vowed to return to policies that had made it one of the most admired companies in the world.

Great (Adaptive) companies do make mistakes, just like lesser ones. What distinguishes them is what they do next. They acknowledge their mistakes, quickly correct them and determine how to obviate the entire class of such mistakes in the future. Mr. Toyoda, the ball’s in your court.

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