I don’t typically stray on this blog into business or political issues, but I read a recent interview with Steve Wozniak that set me off. I’m typically very fond of Steve, but he’s fallen prey to the blind Toyota love that has taken so many.
Let me start by saying that I understand why people became so enchanted with Toyota. At a time when our Big 3 were behaving like bloated dinosaurs, they were the scrappy up-and-comer doing all the right things. Instead of gas guzzlers, they made efficient small cars. They mastered Just-In-Time manufacturing, which brought production costs way down. They also focused on quality, making their vehicles better long term bets. And finally, they didn’t function under the “us versus them” mentality you got with Big 3 management and the union. All of this allowed them to thrive in North America in a way no one ever believed a foreign brand could. They also paved the way for other Japanes companies to follow.
Then, in 1997, they topped it all off by introducing the Prius. This slapped common knowledge in the face. Here they were introducing a hybrid vehicle, which folks back here said could never thrive as a competitive vehicle. With that, Toyota cemented itself as the most innovative car company in the world.
It was also around this time that the old Toyota ceased to exist, though no one noticed until recently. By doing the types of things I mentioned, the executives at Toyota found themselves knocking on the door of a title they might never have dreamed of before: biggest car company in the world. That was now the goal and they chucked aside their old goal: being the best car company in the world.
Once this was set, they started behaving just like the car companies they were kicking the pants of off. Quality processes were allowed to slip to keep production up. They kept doing things “the way they’ve always been done” even if the reality on the ground changed. They were ill-prepared to make inroads to new markets, like China. And most importantly, executive management made it clear they didn’t want to hear any bad news, even if it might threaten the health of the company. Does any of this sound familiar?
So how does this relate to Steve Wozniak? Well in this interview, the Woz was playing off the Toyota problems as “no big deal.” He was convinced it was just a small software issue. Guess what, Steve? That small software problem has killed people. Oh, and the President/CEO of the company still won’t admit that the issue is electronic in nature, sticking with recall fixes that might not even solve the problem.
Steve is another person who fell in love with the old Toyota and doesn’t see or refuses to see that it no longer exists. There are lots of people in this category and they’ve been having such a good time feeling superior for the last several years they won’t let go. I usually don’t like Joel Stein columns, but he had a recent one in Time that I really enjoyed about how his wife loves her Prius so much that she won’t admit there’s a problem with it, even while using it to drive their kids around. She’s gotten such a smug kick out of owning it that she’s scared to let it go. His summary, not mine.
Being a Detroit area resident hasn’t been gratifying for a while now. A lot of it has to do with the fact that our nameplate companies had spent years acting like fat, happy children while their world was crumbling away. I don’t brush this off, but it got so tiresome to hear people prattle on about how Toyota was so much better. I like The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, but when he went on and on about how Toyota should buy GM because it’s beyond saving, I wanted to throw up. On top of that I had to hear one interview after another with “analysts” who were getting a kick out of talking about how perfect Toyota was and how awful we all were. By the time I heard Bill Maher whine about how America doesn’t make anything any more, followed by how he hoped the American car companies went down in flames, I had enough. By talking this way, they got to bask alongside the company in its superiority. They totally bought into the idea that Toyota was better and that by loving it, they were better as well.
So here we are today. The Big 3 have been dragged down and two of them are on their way back up, fixing many of the issues that made them lumbering dinosaurs until the recent past. And while they’re on their way back up, Toyota is heading down. To these folks, that just doesn’t compute, which is why you have a software genius trying to explain away Toyota’s issues as being no big deal when he should know better.
Toyota is now another big car company and behaving accordingly. It’s the same thing that happened to the Big 3 once they were the only ones left and all they had to worry about was each other. Once the game changed, they refused to let go of that idea. As Toyota has had less time in that position, maybe they can turn it around faster. I actually hope they do. There are a lot of jobs on the line with them, including in America. They got to the top by showing the world how you should be making cars. I’d like to see how they do on a more level playing field. That is, unless Hyundai starts kicking everyone’s butt.