What the world’s biggest carmakers can learn from other corporate turnarounds.
“Less than two years ago Toyota swept past an ailing General Motors (GM) to become the world’s biggest carmaker. Now its newly installed boss, Akio Toyoda, the 53 year old grandson of the founder, says that the firm could be locked in a spiral of decline. Toyota is still a hugely formidable company, and some within the industry (and inside Toyota itself) believe that Mr Toyoda may be overstating the case. Yet there is no shortage of signs that all is not well.
Toyota’s story has implications beyond the motor industry, for it is not just a car company; it is the model for manufacturing excellence whose “lean” techniques have been copied by countless firms. How it slipped up –and how it may right itself –carries lessons for others.
Althought some of its rivals, notably Volkswagen of Germany and Hyunday of South Korea, have come through the terrible past year relatively unscathed. Toyota’s market-share has either fallen or been flat in every region in which it operates except Japan—a market that was shrinking well before the crisis struck.
In America, its biggest and normally most profitable market, Toyota has been plagued by highly publicised recalls that have raised embarrassing questions about the safety of its vehicles. In China, India and Brazil, the big emerging markets that will provide nearly all the industry’s future growth, Toyota has been slow of the mark. Its lead in hybrid technology is under threat as other big carmakers scramble to bring low –and zero –emission vehicles to market before low –carbon legislation bites. Astonishingly, in the first three months of 2009 it made an even bigger loss than GM, which was then on the verge of bankruptcy. Underlying all these problems is an uncomfortable truth: Toyota’s rivals have now caught up. They now offer cars that are just as reliable but far more exciting than the rather dull vehicles Toyota has concentrated on producing in ever –larger numbers.
A bit of vroom needed.
Toyota can also learn from the woes of other carmakers. A decade ago Ford thought it had found a saviour in the dynamic Jac Nasser, who declared his intention to transform the firm from an old –economy carmaker into a nimble, internet-savvy, consumer powerhouse that managed brands and sold services. He also went on a wild acquisition spree, paying huge sums for Volvo and Land Rover. Unfortunately, amid Mr Nasser’s cultural revolution, Ford lost sight of its main purpose: building decent vehicles as efficiently and profitably as possible. That is what Ford is reaping the rewards for doing now, under the less exciting but steadier leadership of Alan Mulally.
Toyota, too, has a good chance of putting things right. It is no GM, which had far deeper structural problems before it used bankruptcy to off-load some of them. It has a boss who understands what has gone wrong –namely, that it has jeopardized its formerly stellar reputation for quality by pursuing volume at all costs and by failing to put the needs of its customers first. It has started to sort out some of its problems. Quality and reliability are getting back up to the mark. Now it needs to make more exciting and innovative cars.
Mr Toyoda’s approach is not visionary. It is simple, incremental and requires painstaking attention to what the customers want. That is its virtue.”
Extracted from: The Economist December 12th-18th 2009. Pp 69-71. The Economist Print Edition