Personifying Toyota

February 9, 2010
By: Tim Heston

This morning’s announcement of Toyota’s recall of 437,000 hybrid vehicles seems to have brought the automaker’s woes to a whole new level. Judging by the media coverage, these events are epic.

Want to understand the media circus around the Toyota recall? Here’s a little something John Updike wrote about Toyota salesman Rabbit Angstrom to open the novel Rabbit is Rich.

“They won’t catch him, not yet, because there isn’t a piece of junk on the road that gets better mileage than his Toyotas, with lower service costs. Read Consumer Reports, April issue. That’s all he has to tell the people when they come in. And come in they do; the people out there are getting frantic; they know the great American ride is ending.”

The New York Times’
David Segal quoted the 1979 Updike tale in a Sunday editorial, in which he described Toyota as that grade-A student in high school that flunks a test. “A-Student Flunks; Oh, What a Feeling.”  The A-student nerd metaphor works: laughed at during high school (think of the early Toyotas), only to grow up more successful than his classmates.

Media coverage has been chock-full of emotion. I can see why. Strong communication from Toyota has been lacking. Consider this report from National Public Radio this morning:

“The Japanese giant didn't own up to the problems—it minimized them, pointed to a supplier, even blamed the drivers. Toyota watchers wanted to know what was going on, and they wondered: Where was the company's leader?

“President and CEO Akio Toyoda was nowhere to be found until a Japanese TV crew caught up him at the glitzy World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Toyoda made brief, unsatisfying remarks and then left in—an Audi.”


Of course, Toyota has always struck a nerve, particularly in the U.S. In the 1970s, Updike’s novel captured the emotion of an American public embracing and despising (often at the same time) the rise of foreign automakers. In recent years that emotion has subdued. Many readers of this blog and the magazine have made money thanks to Toyota’s presence in the U.S. (Last year I visited a sheet metal prototype shop in Detroit, and the owner said, “We love Toyota.”)

On Sunday Segal captured our current emotion about Toyota in a word:  schadenfreude—the joy in the misery of others.

Watching Toyota suffer is a bit like learning of some tawdry tale about the “Perfects,”  that family most of us knew growing up; that churchgoing, polite, successful, model familial unit that one day got a call from the daughter, attending an Ivy League college, who tells them she’s going to drop out and follow a painter she’s met to Europe. We hear it, shake our heads, and then drive home with a hint of a smile on our face.

There’s plenty of schadenfreude when it comes to Toyota these days, and you can read a lot of it between the lines amid all the media coverage. It’s a human tendency. We’re personifying Toyota, and we’re not spending enough time covering how the company is identifying the problem, measuring data, and coming up with corrective action. As Toyota engineers go about their business to get the job done, media and politicians alike are laying blame.

This has led to a lot of statements that are a bit off the mark. For instance, did Toyota grow too quickly? Plenty say it did, but I haven’t seen the data yet, and I can’t draw a straight line between recent mistakes and Toyota’s overall business strategy, so I really don’t know. Did they withhold information about safety problems? Who knew what and when? Is Toyota’s image permanently damaged? The who-done-it mystery continues, and customers and investors alike are jittery as all get-out.

At the same time, you hear the occasional pundit calling these mishaps part of a rare, big mistake made by an otherwise strong company. Some have said the number of crashes associated with the accelerator problems isn’t statistically significant. Still, I understand why people would be upset by this. Calling the number of crashes from accelerator flaws “statistically insignificant” is a bit like the airline industry’s statistically correct claim that air travel is much safer than driving. The acceleration flaw takes away our control of the vehicle; and we have no control to prevent a crash when riding an airplane. No matter how rare either kind of crash might be, they still scare the bejesus out of us.

When it comes to problem-solving, the less negative emotion the better. This kind of emotion dilutes focus and prevents an organization from moving forward. Toyota’s customers and investors are emotional enough; to get the job done and gain back their confidence, workers need to hunker down, analyze the data, and fix the problem.

That hasn’t stopped media pundits, politicians, and bureaucrats from spouting off emotionally charged conjecture. It all makes for good sound bites, but the truth is we really won’t know what to make of this debacle until long after the issues are solved.

Of course, “I don’t know yet” has never made a good sound bite.
Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
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