by Michael Connor

Toyota Logo_2Toyota’s announcement of a technical fix for its sticky gas pedals – which can lead to sudden acceleration problems – is not likely to bring a quick end to the company’s current recall nightmare.

Having already halted sales and production of eight of its top-selling cars in the U.S. – and recalled more than 9 million cars worldwide, in two separate recalls – Toyota faces the prospect of billions of dollars in charges and operating losses. The Toyota brand, once almost synonymous with top quality, has taken a heavy hit.

While all the facts are not yet in, it’s clear that Toyota’s crisis didn’t emerge full-blown overnight.   Fixing the problem and ensuring that something like it doesn’t happen again will require an all-out effort, from assembly line to the boardroom.  Even then, there are no guarantees. Maintaining a good corporate reputation in the 21st century is tricky business indeed.

Toyota’s case offers a number of valuable lessons for other business people and companies to consider.  Here, for starters, are five:

Aggressive growth can create unmanageable risk. Toyota’s desire to supplant General Motors as the world’s number-one car-maker pushed it to the outer limits of quality control.

“The evidence that Toyota was expanding too much and too quickly started surfacing a couple of years ago.  Not on the company’s bottom line, but on its car-quality ratings,”  writes Paul Ingrassia, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Detroit bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.

Ingrassia, who has just authored a new book on the auto industry, notes that in 2005 Toyota recalled more cars and trucks than it sold; by 2007, Consumer Reports magazine stopped automatically recommending all Toyota models because of quality declines on three models.

One wonders if, when accepting management’s plan for aggressive growth, Toyota’s board of directors exercised appropriate diligence to ensure that growth could be achieved without betting the entire franchise.  Were quality control and safety part of the discussion?  Maybe gaining market share wasn’t worth the trade-off.  Quick tip to directors of other high-growth-oriented companies: read up on Merrill Lynch’s experience with dominating the sub-prime mortgage market.

Get the facts quickly and manage your risks aggressively. One of the more troubling aspects of Toyota’s recalls (there have been two) has been the company’s differing accounts of the source of the problem.  The current recall, covering 4.1 million cars, involves potentially sticky gas pedals.  Late in 2009, Toyota also recalled 5.4 million cars whose gas pedals could get stuck on floor mats.  Plus, Toyota says there are some cars affected by both problems.  (For an interesting technical analysis of some of the issues involved, go here.)

Uncertainty is not an asset, especially when lives could be at stake.  A Los Angeles Times investigation, for example, casts doubt on Toyota’s explanation, quoting one auto safety consulting group as saying, “We know this recall is a red herring.”  (Read Toyota’s position here.)

And the questioning is just beginning. A U.S. Congressional committee headed by Rep. Henry Waxman has already requested copies of emails and other documents from both Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates Toyota with regard to the recalls.   Congressional hearings are scheduled for Feb. 25.

In cases such as this, investigators almost always start with two time-worn questions.  What did you know?  And when did you know it? Answers to those questions provide the groundwork for analysis of a company’s response and handling of a problem.  Were employees encouraged to flag safety issues to senior management?  Were sufficient resources devoted to investigating the problems?   When did the board become aware of the situation and what did it do about it?

Companies generally can’t predict when crises might occur.  However, good internal risk assessment programs can help identify those areas of the business where management should be on the alert.   Robust risk management programs help a company address problems as they pop up on the internal corporate radar screen – and before they explode in public.

Your supply chain is only as strong as your weakest link. The reality is that auto companies make hardly any of their parts.  They assemble cars from parts made by others.  In this case, the offending gas pedal assembly was made for Toyota by a company called CTS of Elkhardt, Indiana.

It’s far from certain how much blame the parts supplier deserves.  In fact, CTS says Toyota’s acceleration problems date back to 1999, years before CTS began supplying parts to Toyota. (And the replacement gas pedal parts Toyota has announced as a fix for the problem will be made by CTS, suggesting a degree of confidence in the supplier.)

Nonetheless, “(if) you are outsourcing for your entire vehicle line, [and] the outsourced component is defective, the recall and the embarrassment is much greater,” iconic car company critic Ralph Nader told Toronto’s Globe and Mail last week. “The overall message is that quality control [means] daily vigilance,” Nader said. “You can’t coast on your reputation because it can fail very quickly.”

Supply chain monitoring is a critical factor for companies that rely on third-party suppliers. That’s increasingly true for a broad variety of industries, not just automobiles, as business grows ever more global.  Smart companies will know their suppliers and their respective strengths and weaknesses.

Accept Responsibility.  This is one area where Toyota seems to be doing a good job, albeit maybe a year or more too late.

Toyota's National Ad on Recall - January 31, 2010

Toyota's National Ad on Recall - January 31, 2010

Two decades ago, when Audi encountered a safety issue similar to Toyota’s, Audi took the position that “it was the driver’s fault,” David Cole, Director of the Center for Automotive Research, told Design News.  Coles says that reaction ultimately hurt Audi’s reputation.

Toyota seems to be avoiding the appearance of passing the buck.  When pressed by the New York Times about problems that might have been caused by supplier CTS, for example, Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said: “I don’t want to get into any kind of a disagreement with CTS. Our position on suppliers has always been that Toyota is responsible for the cars.”

Accountability matters enormously.   Johnson & Johnson’s 1982 recall of its painkiller Tylenol, following the deaths of seven people in the Chicago area, has earned it a permanent place in the annals of crisis management.  But that recall stemmed from the deadly act of an outsider (who has never been caught), not any problem with the product itself, as is the case with Toyota.

Take the Long View. The three leading factors burnishing corporate reputation these days are “quality products and services, a company I can trust and transparency of business practices,” writes public relations executive Richard Edelman, who last week released his corporate “Trust Barometer” survey for 2010.

That’s unfortunate news for Toyota, given the hand that it’s currently playing.  But the company doesn’t have much choice.  By one estimate, auto industry recalls conservatively cost an average of $100 per car – suggesting that Toyota might be on the hook for at least a one billion dollar charge.   That doesn’t include lost revenue to Toyota and its dealers from the production shutdown.  And competitors are already trying to woo customers away and capitalize on Toyota’s misfortune.  Disgruntled investors and Wall Street analysts will make the company aware of their feelings; class action lawsuits are almost a certainty (one lawyer is already searching for Toyota customers as clients).

Reputation can be easily lost – and Toyota’s reputation is indeed threatened – but it’s highly unlikely the company will collapse completely.  And that may be one of the one of the biggest lessons for other companies as they study how Toyota emerges from this recall crisis.  The reality is that Toyota is positioned for recovery about as well as it could be – owing, in large measure, to the reputation for quality products and corporate responsibility it has developed over the last two decades.  That reputation is a valuable asset, and one that Toyota will undoubtedly be citing and calling upon, in the weeks and months ahead.

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