August 30, 2011

Reports of Toyota's demise following the sudden acceleration crisis in 2009-2010 were greatly exaggerated. Initial accounts of Toyota's response to a mountain of public concern about Toyota's vehicle safety were quick to allege a number of severe flaws in Toyota's culture. The Crisis, indeed, cost Toyota dearly in recall costs, and loss of sales and reputation. A brand that for so long had been synonymous with reliability, customer-focus, environmental responsibility and world class quality was all of a sudden portrayed in the most negative way by analyst and the press. And yet, a year later, not only has Toyota turned the corner, but is has used the crisis as an opportunity to further strengthen key processes. 

Treatises on crisis management normally focus on immediate damage control, PR strategies, and clever contingency plans. At a time of crisis, leaders may be hailed as heroes for taking "bold action", or they may be hung in the court of public opinion - as was the case with BP's CEO Tony Hayward following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Numerous analysts and experts accused Toyota's leaders of responding late and insufficiently to the crisis, of denying or even trying to hide the facts, of putting profits before safety. But the ultimate test lay not in what senior leaders said and did in the days and weeks following the incident but in how the culture responded in the weeks and months thereafter.

The defining moment of Toyota's response was not a specific pronouncement by an executive in Japan or the United States but how Toyota's staff turned its energy to finding ways to improve, how Toyota's hundreds of customer service representatives responded to the tens of thousands of calls received daily from concerned customers, and how dealers worked relentlessly to rebuild trust with Toyota's customers.

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