TOYOTA CITY, Japan – Toyota Motor Corp. convened the first meeting of a global quality task force aimed at winning back customer trust, with President Akio Toyoda pledging to improve safety by handing more authority to local units and reacting more quickly to problems.
The Special Committee for Global Quality, chaired by Toyoda, is one of first countermeasures to Toyota's worst ever quality crisis. Since last fall, the world's largest automaker has recalled more than 8.5 million vehicles to address unwanted acceleration and other problems.
The committee brings together newly appointed chief quality officers from six regional markets, including North America, to brainstorm ways to restore Toyota's damaged reputation. The first gathering was held March 30 at the company's headquarters near Nagoya.
Emphasizing its global reach, Toyoda opened the meeting in a room filled with Japanese executives and engineers flanked by Steve St. Angelo, the North American quality czar, and Didier Leroy, his European counterpart. The discussions lasted about three hours.
“We agreed to build a regional framework to ensure that regional input receives full consideration,” Toyoda said afterward. “The chief quality officers hear directly from customers in their region, and so they will participate in recall and other safety matter decision-making.”
The global quality committee was formed partly in response to criticism that local units didn't have enough input into quality and safety decisions made back in Japan.
Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. and Toyota's highest-ranking U.S. sales executive, admitted under Capitol Hill questioning that he has no authority over issues involving manufacturing, engineering or safety matters such as recalls in the United States.
Shinichi Sasaki, executive vice president in charge of global quality, said the new approach is a “180-degree turn.” Executives in Toyota City traditionally drew up mandates and targets, handing them down to local units. The new chain of command will be more bottom-up, he said.
“The direction will be decided at the regional level as quickly as possible, translating into action as quickly as possible. And TMC Japan will back up those regional efforts,” Sasaki said.
Handing more authority to U.S. bosses is a big theme. St. Angelo, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America Inc. in Erlanger, Ky., says his team will be fully involved in future safety decisions.
Under him will be Dino Triantafyllos, a newly appointed regional product safety executive, who will work with executives in Japan to manage product safety decisions.
“That decision will be based on consensus,” St. Angelo said. “If there are any concerns, that safety executive will voice those concerns and make sure they are well understood.”
Part of the new approach is creating more Swift Market Analysis Response Teams, known as SMART groups. Comprised of specially trained trouble-shooting technicians, the teams will be deployed to conduct onsite investigations as soon as possible after problems are reported.
The number of SMART teams in the United States will be increased to seven from one, Triantafyllos said. One is already based in Los Angeles. While the company hasn't decided on the other locations, it is looking at New York and Cincinnati for starters.
Toyota will also set up training centers in Japan, North America, Europe, Southeast Asia and China to train workers in the basics of the Toyota Way. President Toyoda has said his company's human resource development didn't keep pace with its recent rapid international expansion.
The company said those each of those centers will be open by July.
St. Angelo aims to set up the U.S. school by the end of April, probably at the company's technical center in Ann Arbor, Mich. “We're starting to look at what kind of members we would like to staff it with,” St. Angelo said. “We'll probably need some help from Japan to put the curriculum together and also mentor us through it all.”