Toyota Needs Action On Three Levels

My latest article at my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live:

Toyota Needs Action On Three Levels

Last night I gave a talk on ethics and leadership and I based a large section of it on a reading of Akio Toyoda’s Wall Street Journal op-ed piece apologizing for his company’s shortcomings and outlining plans to correct them. Published Tuesday, it is a good example of some of the concerns that face a public leader in trying to craft and lead an organization that not only talks ethics but also acts on its ethics.

'Working on machinery' by Flickr user NIOSH
'Working on machinery' by Flickr user NIOSH

Set aside, just for the moment, any anger you may feel that an op-ed statement is perhaps too little, too late. There are definitely ways in which some may say his statement falls short, as does the fact that he had to almost be shamed into attending congressional hearings on Toyota’s problems. Instead, let’s take his statement at face value, because, by doing so, we can draw lessons from it.

The story of how Toyota responds (is responding) to its catastrophic problems illustrates the three levels on which leadership must work if an organization is to act ethically. I have written about this before — I call it Heart, Head, and Hands. What I mean by that is intention, policy, and execution.

  • Intention: What is my mission and purpose? To what extent is the achievement of my goals more important than how I go about it? (Heart)
  • Policy: Are there systems, structures, and practices in place, and are they sufficient? Do they connect logically with my mission? Can they reasonably be expected to result in the fulfillment of my mission? (Head)
  • Execution: Am I carrying out my plans, in the way I intend? Am I following my own rules? (Hands)

So many organizations focus on the first two, and ignore the third — but that’s where things go wrong. All too often, when a problem comes to light, the organizational response is to create new policies and procedures. But many, many times the problem is that someone did not follow rules. Often, there’s one slip that gets tolerated, and then magnified over time. A leader needs to keep their eye firmly on all three levels.

Toyoda’s op-ed is remarkable because he admits that it is at the level of execution that things broke down, and he sees execution as the critical component in correcting the problems.

Sure, he points out that Toyota’s heart is in the right place, as he refers to the “Toyota Way.” And in multiple passages, he outlines specific plans about how he will be correcting the safety problems that are coming to light. That is, he’s got his head in order.

But he also talks about the hands. He admits that it wasn’t a matter of having wrong policies — but that Toyota did not execute its own plans properly. “I recognize that we must do better — much better — in responding to safety issues,” he writes. Elsewhere, he admits, “we didn’t listen as carefully as we should — or respond as quickly as we must” to problems. And, “we focused too narrowly on technical issues.”

That’s looking backwards. Looking forward, Toyoda writes:

I pledge that Toyota will set a new standard for transparency and speed of response on safety issues. We also will strive to lead on advanced safety and environmental technologies. And I will continue to personally visit our sales and manufacturing workplaces to reaffirm the Toyota commitment to excellent quality.

Here, too, is a good lesson — a lesson about execution. It takes three things from a leader to really push execution: Commitment to focus on execution over time; Accountability and a willingness to be held responsible for outcomes; and Courage to act on decision. Toyoda’s statements suggest he is thinking about all three factors.

I am not a Toyota owner, but I know many who see the current problems as a blip in an otherwise stellar record. Akio Toyoda’s statements suggest that this can truly be the case — so long as the execution really is there.

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