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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Apologize the Toyota way

How many times do you have to say you are sorry before your apology loses meaning?

That question comes to mind every time I hear Akio Toyoda deliver yet another apology. Based on the last two days of Toyota executives' testimony before a Congressional panel, I would say the apologies have succeeded in some ways but failed in others. And, ironically, Toyota culture itself seems to hold the key for a truly effective apology.

On the positive side, Toyota executives appear suitably humble. They are wise to the fact, as one crisis public-relations expert put it, that they are not really appearing before Congress to answer questions; they are coming to take a public whipping.

Moreover, Toyota USA has been able to get its dealers to come to Washington to lobby its congressional representatives. That's an amazing show of solidarity, especially given that neither General Motors or Chrysler was able to rally dealers effectively when its chief executives were under Congressional scrutiny while asking for federal bailout funds.

On the negative side, Toyota executives seem ill prepared for tough questions. Could this be a sign that their senior executives are not used to answering tough questions? In many corporate hierarchies, sharp questions are thrown down to more junior managers, not the other way around. Could it be that Toyota cultures suffers from this 'design flaw' as well?

Finally, and perhaps most critically, Toyota executives do not seem to have persuaded the public that they are on top of this issue. Did they know about the problem long before the recall? Do they even know how to fix it now? These questions remain unanswered, and the company's new-found spirit of public disclosure will have to go even further to break their habit of sweeping bad news under the rug.

Once upon a time -- as recently as two months ago -- I would have said there is no company better prepared to make good on its mistakes than Toyota. After all the Toyota Way, based upon the principles of lean manufacturing, stands on the solid foundation of eliminating waste, continuous improvement, and constant learning.

In the Toyota system, assembly workers have the ability to shut down an assembly line if they see a dangerous problem. But Toyota's problems, as an automotive engineering acquaintance pointed out, are not manufacturing errors. Unintended acceleration and problematic floor mats and braking result from design mistakes.

No one in the Toyota culture is venerated more than the engineer, so these design mistakes get to the very heart of the company's culture. Now in its moment of peril, it will fall to those engineers to correct those flaws if Toyota is to make good on its public apology.

By John Baldoni

 |  February 25, 2010; 5:45 AM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I know that sometimes almost everyone drops the ball, I think Mr Toyoda is no different, with his name at stake I don't think he will do less than everything to try and straighten this out, I am a retired mechanic and I own a 1998 Toyota Tacoma with 199,000 miles on it and it still runs great, I once knew an employee where I worked, he was fairly intelligent, but he let it run in the wrong direction, he made a device that could find a security code of any car that had a radio controlled alarm and shut it off or turn it on. If this is possible, then maybe it is also possible that some devious mind could by use of the internet or just radio controlled signals by driving down the interstate, next to you could find the electronic serial number of any cars computer that used a computer and a electronic radio controlled alarm, and send a signal to turn on the antilock brake, so there would be no brakes, and send another signal to WOT (wide open throttle). I think in this day of Super Computer Hackers, that it is very possible.
When the people that have been involved in accidents of this type, said they had no brakes, and wide open throttle, and Toyota said they can't find anything wrong in the computer, maybe they can't because the computer is ok, I know that with Big Rigs, there is also a flite recorder that will tell what has happend, and how the driver, has been driving, like speeding, slamming on the brakes, over revving the engine, overheating, etc. maybe this should be incorperated into cars to? then the DOT, Highway Patrol, Toyota, etc. would have a lot more info to go with.

Posted by: waambrogio | February 26, 2010 12:53 AM
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Toyota's American head said Tuesday that electronics might be a cause, and then the worldwide CEO said Wednesday he was absolutely confident the electronics were not a cause, it was mechanical. This is leadership? These two symbolically highly important men are contradicting and obviously not even talking with one another. I have gone from a Toyota booster to never having one again in my life.

Posted by: chaszzzzz | February 25, 2010 7:32 PM
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WSJ reports: Lexus Cited in Harrowing Account Is Still on the Road

WASHINGTON —The Lexus sedan driven by Rhonda Smith, who testified in Congress Tuesday about a harrowing incident of sudden acceleration, is still on the road, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In fact, the new owners of the luxury ES350 sedan have reported 27,000 miles trouble-free with the vehicle, according to a NHTSA spokeswoman. Mrs. Smith and her husband sold the vehicle after the incident, in ...


The bunch of bastard on capitol hill beat a crap out of Mr.Toyoda. Rhonda Smith said on TV screen "Toyota, shame on you!"

American ladies and gemtlemen, if you let your congressmen to yell, look down on your guest and insult his mother country, definitely, the United State of America will lose its friends and allies.

Posted by: iseheijiro | February 25, 2010 2:31 PM
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Toyota does indeed "make good" on its mistakes. Job number one is political influence within the NHTSA, which goes nicely with job number two, Toyota's policy of blaming customers for obviously defective products. Ol' "Mr. T" gets paid for producin' defects, and then gets paid again for fixin' em.

Yessir, when it comes to Toyota's methods of makin' a buck, over 3,000 oil sludge victims have signed a petition in protest


Posted by: ParrisBoyd | February 25, 2010 12:42 PM
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What a progess from the times of Ralph Nader. GM is no player anymore.

Posted by: uzs106 | February 25, 2010 6:48 AM
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