Toyota's no-show leadership

By Alex Taylor III, senior editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- The last time anyone looked, Toyota was a Japanese company controlled by a Japanese family. But during the entire accelerator recall crisis -- now complicated by brake problems with the Prius -- they have been all but invisible.

These are no absentee owners. The Toyoda family built Toyota Motor (TM) into the largest auto company in the world and the leader of its third generation, Akio Toyoda, is president. His father, Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda, who turns 85 on February 17th, is the company's honorary chairman and, according to associates, he remains deeply involved in the company's operations.

So with this rich history behind them, who did Toyota send out this week to answer questions about the accelerator recall? An American sales executive named Jim Lentz.

Now Lentz is one of the smartest and most capable executives in the auto industry, but he isn't even Toyota's number one executive in the U.S. Nor is he an engineer, which makes him less then perfectly qualified to answer technical questions about how an automobile starts and stops.

But what's really worse is that he is not a member of the Toyoda family. Akio Toyoda has strongly held views about the importance of quality and reliability in Toyota's history, and the role of his family in the company's success. But neither he nor his father has confronted the recall problem head on in public. The younger Toyoda has even gotten the nickname "no-show Akio."

It is frankly surprising and hard to explain. In a good year, North America provides the bulk of the profits for Toyota and is a major contributor behind Toyota's enormous market capitalization. But now, at a time of its biggest crisis, when the flow of those profits is threatened, Toyota has allowed America to fend for itself.

One senses a deep debate going on inside the company. On one side is the American operation arguing for Japan to get significantly involved in the recall in a way that the public can see. But America has always had a difficult time making its opinions heard on the other side of the Pacific. That difficulty has been exacerbated because of the retirement at year's end of a senior California-based public relations operative.

Back in Japan, executives are struggling to come up with an answer to public doubts about Toyota cars and trucks. But they are traditionally slow to act and their sense of how to communicate with American audiences is not well-developed.

Keep in mind that Toyota is a company run by engineers who like definitive answers to even the most complex problems. They are uncomfortable with softer subjects -- especially in different cultures -- that aren't easily understood through a root-cause analysis.

It is likely that Japan is all too mindful of the drubbing that Ford CEO Jac Nasser took a decade ago when he become the automaker's spokesman in the Explorer rollover crisis. Nasser became something of a laughingstock because of his thick Australian accent, and there were predictable references to Crocodile Dundee.

Most Toyota executives speak excellent English, though they often prefer to have interpreters translate for them. They are doubtless concerned about the impact of their accents on Toyota's image. Still, they would likely win points for sincerity and conviction were they to speak for themselves when appearing before the American public.

Prolonged media appearances in times of crisis by top executives may not be not the Japanese way. But it is the American way and, increasingly, the global way.

Toyota has struggled for years to shed its conservative habits and to become more of a global company. But the slow progress it had been making in this direction has been reversed by its handling of the current crisis.

There is a Japanese expression: genchi genbutso, meaning "go see for yourself." It is an integral part of the renowned Toyota Production System. For any problem to be solved, it has to be inspected first at the place where it has occurred.

It is time for the Toyoda family and their associates to go and be seen at a place where Toyota cars are designed and built so they can face the public, explain what has gone wrong and lay out how it plans to fix them. Such a simple act will go a long way toward defusing the current crisis -- and enabling Toyota to keep growing as a global company. To top of page

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