Toyota ordeal is far from over

Toyota so wants its crisis to be over. From President Akio Toyoda down to the receptionist at a small town Toyota dealership, they have to be feeling oppressed and unfairly picked on. You can almost hear a collective cry of "Enough already!"

But they must resist feelings of self-pity or they will find themselves even deeper in the  mire.

Toyota leadership, beginning with Toyoda, must be vigilant in not letting "victim confusion" (in the words of crisis counselor Jim Lukaszewski) settle into the psyche of the people of Toyota. As tough as the criticism has been in the media and in Congress, they have to remember who the real victims are in this crisis: legions of Toyota customers, not just those who have been involved in accidents related to sudden acceleration or faulty brakes but the millions of Toyota customers now worried about their safety.

Managing through a lengthy and contentious crisis is hard, thankless work. It is only natural for those on the crisis team (and others within the company) to think of themselves as the victims of overly aggressive critics. Only when their "relentless pursuit" in addressing their customers' worries takes precedence over their own desire for it all to be over, will they be able to begin to regain the trust of their customers and the public at large. 

Akio Toyoda's testimony to Congress this week was a good first step. I was most encouraged to read that he had pledged that a diligent effort within his company will continue to search for any and all root causes of the vexing sudden acceleration effort. The company believes the problem is purely mechanical, not electronic, but it will continue to investigate thoroughly, he said. 

Toyota's investigative work must continue without preconceived biases against finding electronic root causes. The temptation once the company has gone "all in" (in declaring that scrunching a small shim into customers' gas pedal assemblies will fix a purely mechanical problem) is to conduct an investigation determined to prove the company right.

If it turns out that there is more to the problem than sticky gas pedals, the crisis Toyota has endured so far will seem like a walk in the park.  And if it turns out that Toyota was less than forthright and comprehensive in its safety invesigations since Toyoda "got religion."

And even if the suspicions of an underlying electronic mishap don't turn out to be warranted, the scrutiny Toyota must endure is far from over.

There will another Congressional hearing next week. There will be more leaks of embarrassing documents and broadsides from safety advocates and campaigning politicians. It will all seem unfair. But Toyota leadership must seize the moment — a time to continue to demonstrate a reawakened commitment to quality and dedication to the customer, and a new-found ability to listen attentively to complaints and criticism. And a teaching moment for Akio and other leaders to redirect the energies of Toyota's capable people to deliver on these commitments, even ahead of imperatives to reduce cost and to grow relentlessly, all the while resisting the temptation to succumb to self-pity.

- Jon Harmon 

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