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Long after Akio warned of hubris, doting Japan turns on Toyota

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Long after Akio warned of hubris, doting Japan turns on Toyota

Hans Greimel

Automotive News -- February 9, 2010 - 3:18 pm ET

TOKYO -- Four months ago, long before Toyota Motor Corp. was embroiled in a global recall crisis, President Akio Toyoda warned that his company was imperiled by hubris.

“Toyota has become too big and distant from its customers,” the CEO said at an Oct. 2 press conference during which he also said the world's largest automaker was “grasping for salvation.”

Now with the emergency finally landing in Toyota's backyard, Japan's normally doting lawmakers, regulators and media are beginning to agree with that dour assessment.

Today Toyota launched a global recall of 437,000 hybrid vehicles -- including its popular Prius -- as the carmaker sank deeper into a quality crisis that has battered its image, hurt sales and triggered an onslaught of lawsuits. This recall adds to the 8.1 million vehicles already recalled worldwide since last fall.

Toyota has long been a symbol of Japan's economic success. But these days, critics in its homeland are chastising the carmaker as cocky, lax on safety and deaf to customers.

Even the performance of Toyoda, grandson of the company's founder, is under fire.

Taking a jab the president's oft-repeated mantra of “customer first,” Transportation Minister Seiji Maehara told reporters Friday that “Toyota's attitude comes up short.”

“Words are not enough,” echoed an editorial in the Nikkei business daily that chided Toyota for sacrificing quality during its rapid global expansion. “They can't be arrogant about past success.”

The Yomiuri, Japan's biggest daily newspaper, autopsied the carmaker's fall from grace and concluded, “There is no denying Toyota was overconfident.”

Toyoda's warning at the October news briefing was drawn from the five stages of corporate decline outlined by Jim Collins, author of How the Mighty Fall.

Toyoda warned that his company already had spiraled through the first three stages: hubris born of success, undisciplined pursuit of more and the denial of risk and peril. The carmaker, he said then, was now “grasping for salvation” in a final attempt to avert capitulation to death.

Any talk of Toyota's imminent death is, of course, melodramatic. But Akio's grim assessment shows he had a keen appreciation for his company's weak points long before the crisis.

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