'Toyota Way' was lost on road to phenomenal worldwide growth

Last year, Toyota took the extraordinary step of suspending the manufacture and sale of some of its most popular models because of a flaw in their accelerators. Toyota executives soon were called to Capitol Hill for testimony and a probe was launched to find the cause of the problem.
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 13, 2010

TOKYO -- Toyota separated itself from all other carmakers by immersing its workers in "the Toyota Way," a cult of quality and innovation that was painstakingly taught to new hires by experienced mentors.

World-beating quality spawned astounding global growth. The number of cars made at Toyota plants jumped more than 60 percent between 2000 and 2008, a golden era of earnings when annual increases in production sometimes outpaced the total output of Mazda or Chrysler.

But now, as the company recalls millions of flawed cars around the world, there is an expert consensus that growth itself derailed the Toyota Way, blurring its focus on quality, thinning its stable of expert mentors and undermining its capacity to respond to consumer complaints.

Secrecy and scapegoating have compounded Toyota's troubles. The company relies on foreign car buyers for most of its profit and nearly all its growth, yet decision-making remains centralized in Japan, where top executives have been slow to reveal safety problems that have led to recalls.

"Consideration for customers was lacking in Toyota," Seiji Maehara, Japan's minister in charge of transport, said this week after the government learned that the carmaker had known for months about a problem of squishy brakes on its Prius hybrid.

Yet until the Japanese government pressured them to recall more than 400,000 Priuses and other hybrid models on Tuesday, Toyota executives had insisted that the braking issue was a matter of driver "perception."

In the United States, where years-old problems with a sticking gas pedal led to a suspension in January of the production and sale of eight vehicle models, Toyota had also neglected customer complaints, blamed drivers and was not forthcoming with federal investigators.

Systemic failings

As Toyota weathers the worst public-relations disaster in its history, its top executives are beginning to acknowledge that the company has major systemic failings.

At a news conference in Tokyo this week, Toyota's vice president for quality control, Shinichi Sasaki, detailed three major weaknesses that the company has diagnosed in its quality monitoring and customer relations since October. That's when Toyota began its largest-ever round of recalls.

As described by Sasaki, the problems include:

-- Lack of thoroughness in testing new cars and car parts under varying weather conditions, as demonstrated by the recently recalled gas-pedal mechanism that tended to stick more as humidity increased.

-- Failures in gathering information from customer complaints, especially in the United States.

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