Thursday, February 25, 2010

Toyota's Epic Recall Fail: When Saying You're Sorry Falls On Deaf American Ears

There is a cultural chasm between Japanese and American society that bubbles beneath the surface largely unnoticed until something like trying to end a world war or the massive recall of 8.8 million Toyotas happens.

That recall has revealed the Toyota corporate culture to be hypocritical in the extreme, witness a memo in which executives chortle that they have saved the world's largest automaker $100 million by recalling several thousand floor mats rather than address an epidemic of stuck accelerator pedals that may have caused as many as 35 deaths. And so the repeated apologies by company President Akio Toyoda, the grandson of Toyota's founder, are falling on largely deaf American ears.

Among them my own.

I lived in Tokyo and traveled from one end of the country to another, so I am well aware of the "I'm sorry" dynamic of Japanese society. And while respectful of societal mores that can seem so strange to the average Westerner and occasionally remained so for me despite my deep affection for the country and its people, I came to understand that an apology -- whether from a cab driver or the prime minister -- can be as empty as an American's "Excuse me" after bumping into someone stepping off of an elevator, which makes Toyoda's statement that he took "full responsibility" in testifying before a congressional committee yesterday the equivalent of empty calories.

As if that were not bad enough, there is another cultural difference that has undermined Toyota: The Japanese obsession with consensus building amidst a crisis where consumers and the media wanted quick answers.

Perhaps the army of ad men and damage-control consultants trying to put Toyota's image back together again will finally get through to those insular and, it seems, xenophobic corporate executives back in Japan. But that was not apparent listening to Toyoda's tortured testimony, which was reluctantly given after days of vacillating about whether he would take up an offer to drop by Congress for a chat before he would be compelled to do so.

As it is, the 53-year-old Toyoda's ham-handed management of the crisis is even more difficult to understand because he received an MBA at an American college and then lived in New York City for several years and should know that he can't bow his way out of this mess.

So it perhaps was inevitable that Toyoda-san wouldn't come off as slick as James Lentz III, the oleaginous president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, who grudgingly admitted in congressional testimony on Tuesday that the recalls may not have entirely solved the unintended acceleration problem.

Lentz had to be reminded that Toyota still has not launched an in-depth investigation into the onboard electronic management system that some experts believe may ultimately be at fault but it keeps denying have anything to do with a crisis that has seen its sales and share price tank. Nor did Lentz note that weeks after the recall, some owners of the affected Toyota and Lexus models still have not received notifications.

Let's be clear that when it comes to hypocrisy the U.S. is the world leader, and some of the very men and women questioning Lentz and Toyoda positively reek of the stuff, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration helped grease the skids for Toyota's epic recall fail by not doing its job. That clearly was the back story in the defensive testimony of NHTS head Ray LaHood, who was on the hot seat before Toyoda. Let's also be clear that some of the unintended acceleration incidents might have been driver error.

Toyota made its nut in the U.S. by manufacturing vehicles that are dull compared to the competition but more reliable than the competition. Now that the reliability imprinteur has been shattered, it's left with dull cars and a sucky reputation that will take years to overcome.

But then Toyota's inability to come to terms with the cultural differences of its largest market in dealing with a largely self-created disaster is . . . uh, so Japanese.

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