Last week we witnessed an extraordinary event when the President of Toyota Motor Corporation testified in Washington D.C. at a House of Representatives committee hearing. While it is common knowledge that these opportunities give the representatives, yet, another political window to grandstand a bit, it also provides the public a chance to see and hear from top executives that often are seldom seen and heard. I never dreamt that I would see Mr. Akio Toyoda in this venue, much less treated as he was. I understand that everyone has an opinion and different viewpoints, but frankly, I was hurt and embarrassed at the way he was treated. "Guilty!" seemed to be the collective cry of the interviewers! Even though they were there to seek answers and gather facts, they appeared to do nothing more than denounce and belittle any attempt Mr. Toyoda made to testify.
But really..... it's what I expected. Many of our political leaders are only interested in doing the things that promote their own political careers, by stroking the egos and wishes of their constituents - no matter who gets trashed in the process. The line of questioning was so biased it was almost comical - although I know the Japanese at the front table found no humor in it. There were so many comments that were simply inaccurate and lacking a factual basis. As much as the representatives tried to look informed and intelligent regarding the topic, it was clear they were not, and were simply regurgitating comments and information handed to them by their ill-informed staff.
I have met Mr. Toyoda several times. The latest was when he visited our engine plant in Huntsville in May, 2009. He is a charming, intelligent, warm-hearted leader that genuinely cares for Toyota's team members and our customers. When I picked him up at the airport in my Sequoia, I said "Welcome to Alabama, Mr. Toyoda." He said, "Thank you. I came to see your face." We had a wonderful visit with him before he departed for his next stop. But, on the way back to the airport, I asked him to sign a car magazine that one of our team members had given me. He did so, graciously - even writing a personal note!
February 24, 2010 Congressional Hearing
As one of my colleagues noted, "If an American executive, say.... Bill Gates, had to fly to Japan and do the same thing, I know he would have been treated with much more respect and dignity." I tend to agree. I have been to Japan 35 times in the last 22 years. Every time, I have been treated with the highest regard by the most polite people I have ever met - no lie! It doesn't matter if it's a high ranking executive or a taxi cab driver. Try to get high regard and politeness from a taxi cab driver in the U.S. - or from members at a Congressional hearing...
Mr. Toyoda visits Huntsville
Nevertheless, I was so proud of Mr. Toyoda's perseverance and tactfulness. I believe he genuinely represented his worldwide employees very well. After the hearing, he spoke to the many dealers and team members that had traveled to Washington in an effort to show support. Mr. Toyoda had to stop a couple of times as he choked-up while thanking everyone for their support. He said he could really feel it!
The Toyota Corporation is the most honest, dedicated, "customer-first", high integrity company that I have ever seen. Toyota is not perfect, but once we see a problem, we fix it ASAP. We implement countermeasures to ensure it doesn't happen again. There really isn't such a thing as a "Best Practice" because we are always looking for ways to improve everything. We will get better and stronger as a result of the latest recalls. What started out as a public thrashing of the world's #1 automotive company's president, will no doubt come back to haunt the competition in the near future. Be careful what you ask for... Toyota will propel to the next level of Safety, Quality, and transparency like never before seen in this industry.
Maybe I should thank the House committee members for waking us up.... there is a renewed energy and commitment in the company that will no doubt.... Move us Forward!
Read his Op-Ed piece in the WSJ.