Anyone who knows Toyota well will be saddened by the recall elephant trap into which the company has fallen so spectacularly, writes Christopher Macgowan.

Recalls are not new and it needs to be pointed out that the motor industry has a necessary and brilliant record of successfully contacting an incredibly high percentage of owners when something needs to be looked at. It is right we should be good at reaching our customers – but when you see in a newspaper a rather timid advertisement announcing a defect on a white goods product you realise we are in a rather different and more effective league.

Clearly the sheer scale of the Toyota recalls has caught people’s attention but I think it is more the perception that because Toyota quality is such a given – the company virtually invented it – somehow Toyota should be immune from such tawdry events as a global recall. It isn’t and more importantly never has been but the company’s human frailty has caught the imagination and the question everyone is asking is “How could this happen to Toyota of all people?”  The question reflects the very high esteem in which the company is held and is rather asked out of bewilderment than criticism.

I have a view.

Toyota is enormously well run and its “right first time” and “continuous improvement” philosophies have swept the world and are emulated globally.

But the Toyota DNA which makes this possible is a deeply embedded culture, much of it written down but even more carried forward through the very soul of the company. When Toyota started its expansion beyond Japanese shores it was able to transplant highly trained people – invariably Master Engineers – to run these new Toyota enterprises, train local people in the Toyota way of doing things and genuinely transplant the culture. Such an example would be the Toyota plant in Derby which brought a seemingly radical new concept to the UK – of all places – and implemented it there and then.  Ably assisted by the hiring of Sir Alan Jones at its inception in 1990 becoming Managing Director in 2001. In those days a visit to the Burnaston, Derby factory was a mirror image of any Toyota plant in Japan and so successful was and still is the UK plant that product is now exported to Japan from the UK.

However, automotive globalisation took off at a pace nobody could have foreseen and it is my contention that many companies – and Toyota is just one example and so should not be singled out in the recall frenzy – have struggled to have anything like enough people available to insert the philosophy in new ventures around the world. In the early days it was a struggle because of cultural differences but it was done and successfully delivered and implemented. More recently having enough evangelists to utterly uncompromisingly deliver a new culture and a new way of doing things has stretched corporations sorely.

It is hardly surprising; these brilliantly successful techniques were honed to perfection in Japan and they were proved to be transferable with great effort and dedication. But when those valuable – in fact priceless – resources started to be stretched as I believe they were due to the pace of globalisation, one or two degrees of intensity and completeness were lost. Not intentionally, not by choice and certainly not spotted at the time.

Manufacturing excellence is a given for many automotive companies. Product reliability and perfection is now demanded and delivered. Phoning the boss to say you will be late for work because the car won’t start is no longer plausible.

I believe the pace of globalisation is resulting in the ability to deliver perfection through the culture we have come to respect to be under duress and threat. It can be put right, and Toyota will do so, but it will be so difficult for those companies who have preached perfection and continuous improvement to accept that for a while they will be the patient after years of being the gifted physician.

Christopher Macgowan

Christopher Macgowan is the former Chief Executive of both The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) and The Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMIF). He is a visiting professor at the University of Buckingham’s Business School’s Centre for Automotive Management. He chairs the DFT’s Interoperability Forum which will help steer the delivery of interoperability between different road pricing schemes such as toll charges at bridges or congestion charges such as we see in London. Mr Macgowan is also Vice Chairman of the DfT’s Motorists’ Forum which helps government and industry work together and keeps the interests of the motorist firmly on the agenda.

Christoper Macgowan’s website