Even Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood got into the act, saying that anyone who owns a Toyota vehicle should "stop driving it" (he later recanted his statement). Call up virtually any news site today and there's a good chance you'll find something negative about Toyota.
I'm not here to downplay the seriousness of the accelerator problem. The company deserves some of the criticism because of the massive scope of the problem. We spend a lot of money on our cars and expect them to work safely and reliably. Toyota's reputation for quality has also most likely contributed to the fallout in this situation. They have been a hugely successful company for many years now and they have to take their licks just like any other company facing a massive recall.
The problem I'm having is that some of the criticism seems to be based on politics or ignorance rather than facts.
Lean is Not the Problem
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) ran a story last week entitled, "How Lean Manufacturing Can Fail," claiming that the Toyota Production System contributed to the accelerator problem because of standardization of parts across models and a reduced number of suppliers. I can see how someone who doesn't understand lean could think this, but the WSJ is a respected business news source and its reporters should know better.
Lean has been a key to the company's success (in terms of quality and profitability). Standardizing parts across models - which, by the way is not just a "lean" concept - is what makes cars affordable. It's the way the high volume automakers (as well as manufacturers in many other industries) do business.
Reducing the number of vendors also contributes to improved quality because it enables the company to work much more closely with each supplier. Also, more suppliers means more variation in incoming products - thereby increasing assembly time and quality problems.
Another issue that's causing problems for Toyota is the lack of visibility of Akio Toyoda, the company's CEO. Although I agree that this problem was large enough to warrant more media presence from Toyoda, it's really not how Japanese executives operate.
To demonstrate the difference between U.S. and foreign companies, how many people can name the CEO of Honda? Volkswagen? Total? ING? These are among the world's largest companies, but very few people can name their chief executives. CEOs of foreign companies don't tend to grab the spotlight the way American executives do. Toyota is learning a difficult lesson right now that Americans expect swift assurance from the chief executive that the problem is being resolved.
Japanese companies (especially Toyota) also tend to study problems methodically and do not jump to implement fixes until they feel they truly understand the causes. Unfortunately, when we're talking about an issue like this, those using the product get very nervous about their personal safety while the problem is being analyzed.
My guess is that the media bashing is also heavily political, in nature. American automakers have been beaten down so badly - mostly by Toyota - over the last several years that the buy American sentiment is driving many of the attacks. I guess we'll learn more about this when Volkswagen takes over as the world's number one automaker as a result of this crisis.
Several months ago, I wrote that Toyota had taken its eye off the ball and, as a result, problems were starting to surface (see Taking Your Eye Off the Ball). It was evident to me back then that, in its push to supplant General Motors as the world's largest automaker, Toyota seemed to forget what got them there in the first place.
I also wrote in the blog that it appeared that their problems were being addressed. They have a new CEO and he seems to be refocusing the company on its fundamental purpose (to enrich society through carmaking). I also don't believe that the bad habits the company developed had been around long enough to cause major damage to their culture.
My guess is that they will survive this slip-up and return to the number one spot over the next few years. Toyota tends to be a very long-term focused company and I'm betting that they won't take short-term action that will result in hurting their future. The company undoubtedly does not want anything like this to happen again, but if it does, they really need to channel their obsession with learning toward improving the way they deal with the American media.