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Consumers were surprised in October 2009 by the first of a series of highly publicized recalls of Toyota vehicles in the United States. Citing a potential problem in which poorly placed or incorrect floor mats under the driver’s seat could lead to uncontrolled acceleration in a range of models, Toyota announced that it was recalling 3.8 million U.S. vehicles. The recall was triggered by the report of a fiery crash in California, where the accelerator of a Lexus sedan got stuck, resulting in the driver’s death.
Additional reports of unintended acceleration from sticky gas pedals prompted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to pressure Toyota to recall additional vehicles and models.
To car buyers and students of manufacturing excellence, Toyota was no ordinary company. It was in a class by itself, long known, even revered, for its sterling quality. For manufacturing executives who have strived for decades to emulate Toyota, the mere suggestion that it had quality issues was a serious matter, to say the least. All over the world, executives paused to wonder if they had been chasing after the wrong manufacturing model.
Despite Toyota’s long record of building reliable, low-defect vehicles, public perceptions about quality are often greatly influenced by reports in the media and their overall timing. The public view can be at odds with the objective measures. In the case of Toyota, there were definitely indications that the quality level of its products had fallen off in recent years. What’s more, the changes had occurred during a period of time when many of Toyota’s competitors, including Ford, Chevrolet and Hyundai, were producing better and better cars. The key question was the source of Toyota’s problems: To what extent did they originate with the product designs and assembly, and to what extent could they be pegged to the company’s manufacturing systems?
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2. Gallup, “Americans, Toyota Owners Still Confident in Toyota Vehicles,” March 2, 2010, www.gallup.com.
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5. J.D. Power and Associates, “J.D. Power and Associates 2010 U.S. Initial Quality Study” (Westlake Village, California: J.D. Power and Associates, 2010).
6. C. Jensen, “Toyota’s Image Falls in J.D. Power Survey,” New York Times, June 18, 2010, sec. B, p. 5.
7. J.D. Power redesigned the IQS survey in 2006, doubling the number of items ranked, going beyond defects that can, presumably, be repaired to include design problems. With quality differentials sharply diminishing, the survey was in danger of becoming irrelevant, but with a doubling of items to be scored, brand differentials were increased. Many of these new items have little or nothing to do with the fundamental safety, quality, value and performance (in that order) that consumers, on average, say is most important when buying a vehicle.
8. Ordinarily, just equaling longtime quality leaders is not enough to dislodge them from their leadership position. In Toyota’s case, however, these developments combined with the publicity given its successive recalls.
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11. Adding to Toyota’s woes, its recalls are getting far more publicity than those of other automakers. In late October 2010, Toyota issued a voluntary recall on 1.5 million cars globally to replace a brake master cylinder seal. A few days later, Nissan recalled 2 million cars for ignition problems. Both recalls were reported on msnbc.com. The Toyota article was 966 words and described the company as “lurching from recall to recall”; the Nissan article was only 285 words long and suggested that there was nothing unusual about Nissan’s recall. P.A. Eisenstein, “Dark Clouds Gather Over Toyota After New Safety Setback,” Oct. 21, 2010, http://msnbc.com; and “Nissan Recalls 2 Million Cars Worldwide,” Oct. 27, 2010, http://msnbc.com.
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24. Ramsey and Shirouzu, “Toyota Is Changing.”