Toyota Ethics: Too Little, Too Late

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It’s hard to believe the head of any massive corporation when they try to apologize.  We’ve seen it countless times, the slick suit, bowed head, asking for forgiveness for the massive ethical error they’ve just knowingly enacted.  Most people don’t apologize until they get caught, but in Mr. Toyoda’s case, he apologized before even knowing exactly what went wrong, a fact which has its good and bad qualities.  In this situation, Toyota handled it morally and ethically, expect for one glaring issue: the timing.

In Toyota’s case, their response was indeed ethical, the fact that it didn’t come until February 24, 2010, six months after the initial problems however, was not.  When people are dying because of an issue that appears to be with your product, the company should react immediately, figure out exactly what is going wrong, recall the product and fix the problem.  It was precisely this lack of urgency in their crisis management approach, a trait the media really latched onto, that hurt Toyota as a company.    

Mr. Toyoda’s testified on February 24, 2010 and it was quite effective.  He appeared heartfelt, took the blame upon the company and outlined several ways in which the company planned to fix not only the issue at hand, but also the issue of Toyota’s lack of customer service.  He inserted himself into the equation, making a point to tell how he was a trained test driver who drove all the cars they manufactured.  He assured everyone that “my name is on every car,” and gave his personal word that “Toyota will work vigorously and unceasingly to restore the trust of our customers.”  Although to some it means very little, the action of putting “your name” on every product in business is intended to create a personal bond between the consumer and the business, as one person does to another.  Giant corporations are after all, run by people, so breaking the corporate façade is a tactic often used to gain the consumer’s trust.  Personally, I wasn’t at Mr. Toyoda’s testimony, nor do I know his character enough to fully assess his sincerity.  However, the transcription seemed to be sincere, and there’s nothing I know to indicate that Mr. Toyoda shouldn’t be trusted.  The testimony could have been improved by revealing more information about the actual crashes, but it’s understandable why Mr. Toyoda took the more sorrowful approach.  Especially because of the long duration between the throttle issues being reported and his testimony, the public was looking for an apology and Mr. Toyoda gave it to them.  Had he not, the company would have suffered even a bigger loss to their reputation, so considering the context in which he spoke he addressed the issue appropriately. The biggest issue then, would be precisely how long it took for Toyota to respond to the recall issue.

What Toyota should have done in this instance is immediately reveal the fact that a black box existed in every car so they could have gotten to the bottom of the claims.  Then, they could have immediately issued a public statement regarding the claims.  So not to look as they are blaming the victim, they would have to address their fault on designing the gas pedal to be incompatible with a modified floor mat and notify Prius drivers as such.  Then, they could issue a warning on the cars without the redesigned gas pedals, or issue a recall depending upon how much money they stood to lose.  In fact, money is probably the issue which took them so long to respond to the claims in the first place.  I can imagine there was much office delineation, back and forth between board members about the cost of addressing the issue, the cost of recall and how much they stood to lose.  Nearly every ethical blunder a company makes relates to money and how much revenue they stand to lose, and in this case, Toyota made the mistake of putting money before the customer’s safety.  

A possible reason for Toyota not reacting quickly enough is the fact that they are located in Japan, worlds away from the United States, and the urgency of the problem simply did not register with them until months later.  It probably took some time to even get the information, longer to process it, and then even longer to respond.  They have a completely different media, a totally different outlook on their own indigenous corporations and (as Mr. Toyoda addressed), a lack of communication between their North American business counterparts.  That being said however, in the intervening months the American media had sensationalized the story of every Prius being out of control, drivers careening wildly into guard rails and unable to even apply the brakes.  The globalization of Western media around the globe is not a farce, so it’s hard to believe that Toyota wouldn’t have caught wind of it back in Japan.  In addition, Mr. Toyoda never directly said in his testimony that they never knew of the issues regarding the recalls, so the notion of miscommunication of lack of communication between the separate company branches doesn’t seem to account for all the months spent in between.  In short, the reasoning doesn’t hold up, and Toyota was definitely aware of the issues at hand.

What then, could cause such an error on Toyota’s part when they have always been touted for their excellence?  And why didn’t they uncover the evidence that would clear them of their errors?  As the footage revealed, most of the crashes were caused as a result of the driver pressing on the gas when they thought they were pressing on the brake, only one being the result of a gas pedal jamming over an all-weather rubber mat the driver had installed.  In my opinion, the biggest ethical quandary on Toyota’s part was the time it took for them to react.  Had they looked at the black box footage, the could have determined the reality of the situation, addressed the design issue of the gas pedal jamming when installing an additional floor mat, and then quelled the fears of thousands of Prius drivers by revealing the footage that showed little error on their part.  Their error was not responding at all, allowing the media to develop one story into a phenomenon, and subsequently destroy the reputation of their brand.   

In order to recover their reputation, Toyota would have to do a lot more work than if they’d just addressed the issue immediately.  A completely redesigned Prius with more safety features would help, but it is really the name which has suffered more than the engineering.  In all honesty, I think the only thing that can help Toyota’s reputation recover is time, and the public’s general forgetfulness when it comes to things like that.  People are still going to buy Toyota, in particular the Prius, because it’s good on gas mileage, looks nice, and is a car that integrates future technology to help protect the environment.  In the meantime, Toyota sales will just have to suffer, and the company can deal with customer safety more promptly, efficiently, and ethically next time around, or so one would hope.

The Toyota recall situation was at the end of the day, handled ethically if you don’t take into consideration the massive lapse of time.  However, doesn’t the massive lapse of time mean that the company in fact, handled it unethically?  By not responding promptly, they were putting their customers at risk, and therefore treating them without respect or ethics.  In matters of forgiveness, it is up to the individual consumer, and Toyota’s crisis management should seek to get to the bottom of their problems far quicker in the future.  Overall, it is a difficult ethical quandary because Toyota reacted better than many companies and did in fact address the issue, but they fail specifically because of the amount of time it took them to react.