Toyota - My Have Things Changed

In 1988, a local remanufacturer of automobile automatic transmissions, WTI (Williams Technologies (now Caterpillar)), invited Toyota to come to their facilities in Summerville, SC to present the idea of using remanufactured transmissions instead of new transmissions as warranty replacements. The use of Remanufactured transmissions instead of new would reduce Toyota's replacement cost by 50% and would create a lucrative opportunity for WTI and the local economy.

It took years to get Toyotas attention because, in the mind of Toyota, they could not conceive of the idea that one of their transmissions would fail. Their planning, engineering, manufacturing, and quality checks were “world renown” TPS (Toyota Production System) was the goal or envoy of every manufacturer; they truly believed that they would not produce a product that would fail. And in practice this proved to be true. Folks bought Toyotas because they never broke down AND they retained one of the highest resale values in the business.

Finally, in '92, Toyota agreed to a test. They send 25 broken Toyota transmission to Summerville. These units were not documented in any way. No paperwork, no documentation of what the transmission is, what vehicle it came out of, or what broke. WTI's mission was to identify each transmission, the root cause/s for failure, and to document the corrective action. Then, WTI was to remanufacture each transmission and return it to Toyota where it would be tested like one of their new transmissions. A major task indeed.

I remember the day Toyota came to town, 10 men dressed in black suits, as though they were going to a funeral. They were led to a special part of the main production floor where the 25 transmission were laid out in perfect diagonals, in five by five rows. Each transmission was covered with a clean white sheet. As such the transmissions resembled coffins.

I was simply not prepared for what came next, and neither was anyone else. The QM (quality manager) moved to the first transmission and lifted off the sheet whilst the 10 men in black suites turned to face the transmission, and bowed in unison as though honoring a Conrad lost in battle. The QM read the spec sheet identifying the unit and possible vehicle application. The interpreter indicated that the unit identification was correct.

Then came the most bizarre thing I ever saw. The QM began listing the causes for failure. The 10 men from Toyota began bowing low and muttering in Japanese. Of course I could not understand what they were saying, but I could tell they were sincerely cut to the heart and extremely remorseful as though they were personally responsible for the death of that transmission.  Later, the interpreter told us that the 10 men from Toyota were acknowledging their failures, apologizing to their coworker for letting them down, to the company for putting a blemish on Toyota's good name, and to the country for besmirching it's repetition. But most of all, apologizing to their customer who trusted Toyota to provide a quality automobile. This process was repeated again and again until all 25 transmission viewings were complete, and each time the 10 men reacted with the same level of intensity. I fully expected to see the 10 men the next day less 1 pinky finger (Ninja / Yakama style).

Never again would we see the “men from Toyota”. The transmissions went back to Japan for testing. WTI received a report, with many thanks, stating that their assessments were correct and that the remanufactured transmission test results were nearly as good as new transmissions. However, Toyota believed it was in the best interest of their customers to use the experience to improve their existing products and to continue to use new transmissions as warranty replacement. Strangely, Toyota recommended to Honda and Nissan that they consider Williams Technologies for their warranty replacement products. WTI remanufactured Honda torque converters and Nissan transmissions and steering boxes for many years.

But this recent Toyota accelerator and brake issue, What's with that? Could it really be that, what was the envoy of the automotive world, is now the bane of the industry? After this experience with Toyota 20 years ago I can hardly believe what I am hearing. How could a company with a culture fully focused on quality and customer satisfaction, A have such a failure and B not take responsibility, and C try to hide it from their customers and D be Sooo Slooow To Fix IT? Is it Greed or simply bad association with other manufacturing cultures like China and the US? Is true commitment to customer satisfaction dead? Perhaps Ford has a better idea!

Of course I always try to derive some kind of learning experience from things I see and read. In this case, it's the same old story. If you remain fanatically focused on your Customer's wants and needs, profits will never die and you may be able to pick up additional market share when the Toyota of your industry gets greedy.