Two of the most compelling stories these days have to do with an athlete long-considered the best golfer in the world and an automaker that became the world’s No. 1 in 2008 (and is ranked Japan's No. 1 global brand for 2010): Tiger Woods and Toyota.
Once at the top of their games, both entities (brands) now are teetering on the brink of graveyard death. Barring miraculous overnight one-eighties, they're destined to remain there for a long time. The question is how long -- if ever -- it will take them to regain solid footing and escape burial in graves they dug for themselves.
In the interest of full disclosure, I want you to know that I am not a golfer, nor have I ever owned a Toyota -- although some of my friends are golfers and some own Toyotas. I haven't discussed Tiger's tale or Toyota's travails with any of them. Our conversations these days center on health -- ours and the nation's -- family, and jobs -- not always in that order. However, you'd have to live under a media-free rock not to know what's happening with Tiger and Toyota and perhaps be the most nonjudgmental person who ever walked the face of the earth not to have an opinion. Neither of these conditions applies to me.
Let’s get Tiger out of the way first. Remember, this is just my opinion, but I think we need to leave him alone to deal with his personal shortcomings. I watched a video of his 14-minute apology. The man was clearly uncomfortable speaking. Given the circumstances, who wouldn’t be? Quite frankly, I don't believe he really owed the world an apology. His family -- he owes them that and more. His mistresses -- give me a break. I also sensed that he was genuinely remorseful. Once again, given the circumstances, who wouldn't be? Except for maybe an entitled sociopath who's just sorry he got caught.
Yes, children who looked to Tiger as a role model deserve an explanation for his behavior that's best offered by their parents. And lessons in what not to do can be even more valuable than teaching children to model themselves after all-too-human idols.
Whatever the fallout from Tiger's disgusting behavior, it doesn’t include putting countless lives at stake (one could argue that his reluctance to wear a helmet was high-risk behavior, but we aren't going there). His transgressions can't compare, in my opinion, to Toyota's.
To say I'm peeved at Toyota's handling of its product defects is an understatement. The company has long been touted as the manufacturing ideal. Just as many golfers wanted to be like Tiger, many manufacturers strived to be like Toyota -- emulating its production model and hoping to achieve its reputation for quality. Now it appears that Toyota also was a false idol.
In his prepared remarks for today's testimony before Congress, CEO Akio Toyoda will say that safety comes first, even before quality, but will admit that, "These priorities became confused, and [because of rapid growth] we were not able to stop, think, and make improvements as much as we were able to before, and our basic stance to listen to customers' voices to make better products has weakened somewhat. We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization, and we should sincerely be mindful of that. I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced.
"For me, when the cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well. I, more than anyone, wish for Toyota's cars to be safe, and for our customers to feel safe when they use our vehicles. Under my leadership, I would like to reaffirm our values of placing safety and quality the highest on our list of priorities, which we have held to firmly from the time we were founded."
I was taught that actions speak louder than words. To dismiss or hide customer concerns, to suggest that the problems are something they are not, and then delay recalls are actions that speak volumes about the company's concern for safety -- or lack thereof. Just as Tiger must prove by his actions going forward that he is an enlightened, reformed, and committed husband, Toyota must do everything possible to prove that it really cares about its customers' safety and the quality of its products. It will take more than running slick, sappy ads, like this one, during the Olympics. But that’s just my opinion.
The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) believes Toyota is on the right track. In a statement issued yesterday, NAM President John Engler said, "Today was the first of two congressional hearings this week on the Toyota recalls. The NAM welcomes Congress' focus on this issue and believes these hearings can be helpful in clarifying the facts about the problems Toyota is facing and the corrective actions they are taking to eliminate the problems.
"Toyota is an important company that has been creating good manufacturing jobs in the United States for more than 50 years. Across the nation, the company contracts with hundreds of suppliers, employs thousands of workers and contributes significantly to local economies. Thus, we think it is important that not only Congress but also the public give Toyota a fair hearing. (Did Toyota give its customers a fair hearing?)
"When there is a problem, U.S. manufacturers have a long history of stepping up and fixing it. We believe Toyota is committed to working with U.S. lawmakers and regulators to address and explain their recalls, ensure the safety of their vehicles and, most importantly, the safety of the driving public."
Yes, Toyota is responsible for many U.S. jobs, but it also is responsible for the well-being of those U.S. workers and others worldwide who drive its cars. A job doesn't matter if you're dead.
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