Tokyo Notes

Toyota Stems Tide

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Tokyo Notes

Toyota Stems Tide

Has the Toyota chief done enough to halt the string of bad news stories?

The decision yesterday by the US Senate panel looking into the Toyota recalls not to call as a witness Akio Toyoda, suggests that the company president’s appearance at the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform the previous day might have been just enough to turn the tide in this public relations disaster.

It seems incredible that only 10 days ago, Toyoda was suggesting he had no plans of his own to appear in front of the House committee hearing, failing to see it as a golden opportunity to show remorse and to explain what measures would be taken to rebuild confidence in the brand. His PR advisers should have all been sacked if they hadn’t managed to change his mind.

As expected, he was grilled–for three and half hours. But by this point in the debacle, the benefits of having the head of the company try to explain himself in person far outweighed the risks of an errant response.

As detailed in a statement released beforehand, Toyoda said the company’s growth over recent years had ‘too quick,’ a theme he has repeated time and again since taking over the helm of the company last year. Prioritizing sales, he said, had jumbled the company’s traditional concept of safety first, then quality, then volume. He apologized for the accidents that had taken place and specifically to the Saylor family whose tragic accident fuelled momentum toward the recalls. Then he explained what measures would be taken.

Less reassuring was his suggestion that he didn’t find out about the sticky accelerator pedals until the end of last year, as well as his insistence that the electronic throttle system was fine. How could the head of the company not know about an accelerator problem the whole world seemed to have heard about last year, and which his own company had already been addressing in Europe?

As for the electronic throttle system, after seeing last year’s stance of ‘it’s not the pedal, it’s the mat’ fall by the wayside, surely he has to allow for the possibility of yet-to-be understood problems here, too? Toyoda said a third party consultancy group would look into the system. If he hadn’t said that, the positive impact of everything else would have been undermined.

Shrewdly, Toyoda also had ‘a cordial and open discussion’ about improving safety with US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, teared up while talking to Toyota plant workers and dealers in Washington, and appeared on Larry King Live. Like his committee appearance, his performance on King’s show was workmanlike rather than charismatic, and most of the same points were made. But it showed good intent and he scored points when he refused to take King’s bait that there was an element of ‘Japan bashing’ taking place. He certainly got grilled again, but that’s probably what watching Toyota drivers wanted to see.

Here in Japan, one of the big dailies, the Asahi Shimbun, pointed out in its editorial today that despite the trip to the United States, the real work was yet to be done, namely: getting to the bottom of what delayed the recall, what caused the accelerator problems and opening up the company’s management to the outside–including its customers.

All the same, citing favourable comments by House panel chair, Edolphus Towns, and coverage by the New York Times and the Washington Post, the paper concluded on the front page of the same edition that amid unprecedented media interest in the hearing, Toyoda had cleared an important hurdle toward regaining confidence in Toyota.

The later news that Congress had heard enough from him, surely confirms that his trip has indeed been a relative success.