What Makes Toyota Different

Once again, Toyota has demonstrated that what distinguishes it from other automakers has less to do with products and processes than with how its people think.

Toyota executives are obsessed with creating value and quality for the customer. That was clear from comments this week by its president, Katsuaki Watanabe, during his first visit to the Detroit auto show. According to The New York Times, Watanabe used the visit to “convey a passionate plea to his employees on Monday to take personal responsibility for the quality of Toyota cars and trucks.”

“Each individual must carry the responsibility” for ensuring quality, from design to manufacturing and selling cars and trucks, Mr. Watanabe said.
Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Watanabe said the dictate was “something that’s really shameful for us to share with you...”

Speaking in a fervent tone, often gesturing with his hands, Mr. Watanabe refused to blame Toyota’s parts suppliers for the quality problems, which have largely occurred in vehicles that are more than 10 years old.

“I do not regard the problem as something that suppliers are responsible for,” Mr. Watanabe said. “We must work together so that we are fully aware of where suppliers are.”

To help reduce recalls, Mr. Watanabe named a senior executive for quality control and established a Customer First Activities Program Committee to examine processes.

Toyota also has begun keeping track of quality problems on its older vehicles for a longer period than it did in the past, he said.

Mr. Watanabe attributed some of the company’s problems to its growth spurt over the last few years…

“When Toyota was a small company, we could expressly communicate” any quality improvements that were required, he said. “But now that Toyota is so big, we’ve realized that we have not adequately communicated.”

Can you imagine Bob Nardelli of Chrysler, or any other auto company president or CEO, making similar statements? I can’t. They would probably be so hung up on looking strong and powerful that they’d have a tough time being humble and apologetic. They focus on making the business profitable before they think about serving the customer. At Toyota, they know that doing the best job of serving the customer is what makes the company profitable. And that is what sets Toyota apart.