Toyota in Trouble (the quick and dirty version)

February 25, 2010

What happened at Toyota? Mr. Toyoda himself summed it up nicely, as the NYT recently reported.  In a nutshell, Toyota thrived when it focused on improvement. When that focus shifted to growth the company ran into serious trouble:

In his prepared testimony, released on Tuesday, Mr. Toyoda said he took personal responsibility for the situation. In the past, he said, the company’s priorities were safety and quality, and sales came last.

But as Toyota grew to become the world’s biggest carmaker, “these priorities became confused, and we were not able to stop, think and make improvements as much as possible,” Mr. Toyoda said.

Toyota earned its place as the most celebrated operations story of the past few decades because of its relentless commitment to surfacing problems.  The entire organization was focused on the same worthy goals of improving its cars and improving the way its cars were built.  This improvement philosophy reached beyond the factory floor and included strengthening relationships with suppliers and partners.  Toyota managers famously helped suppliers, for example, to lower their own costs by using principles of the Toyota Production System (TPS).  Growth followed naturally.

And then the company’s goal became selling more cars than anyone else, and the metric it glorified was sales growth.  This may seem like a small shift — from growth as an outcome of improvement to growth as a central goal — but the moral of the Toyota story is that this pivot can be devastating.  Improvement is a powerful, worthy mission for an organization’s stakeholders.  Growth can be (and usually is) associated with compromises, with winning the game at any cost.  Toyota paid a cultural price for this shift.  For example, instead of helping its suppliers reduce costs through operational improvement, Toyota began to mandate lower prices and left its suppliers to figure out the rest.  These choices created an environment where cutting corners both inside and outside the organization became likely.

I want the spotlight to linger on this story for a long time.  There are important lessons here beyond the fall of a once-mighty competitor.  The most important one may be that a company’s purpose matters, in ways that go beyond hard-to-measure outcomes like employee satisfaction and  customer loyalty.  Purpose infiltrates an entire organization, all the way down to the manufacturing of a faulty accelerator. My deep hope is that Toyota shows us both the cost of getting it wrong and the path back to getting it right.  Frankly, I’m optimistic.  The tradeoffs are now seared into the souls of every single manager at Toyota.  The company has a powerful incentive to return to its roots as a role model for improvement with growth as a manifestation.