TOKYO -- For Shinichi Sasaki, it was a baptism by fire.
A month after being named Toyota Motor Corp.'s new quality czar, Sasaki spent two hours last week telling reporters how Toyota will improve the quality of its vehicles. He was responding to a safety recall that has Japanese police threatening criminal charges against Toyota managers.
The recall is just the latest event threatening the company's hard-won reputation for quality. Shaken, Toyota is reorganizing, reviewing its quality processes, stepping up its review of aging vehicles' service records and urging customers to report any problems to their dealers.
As a symbolic first step, Toyota executives are apologizing repeatedly. CEO Katsuaki Watanabe says the recalls and a sexual-harassment case in the United States are "leaving people to wonder if Toyota remains sound."
He bowed deeply at a press conference in Tokyo to "express my earnest apologies."
Sasaki and three other managers in charge of quality also bowed at a separate press conference after meeting with government regulators.
"I'm ashamed as a carmaker that we caused worries among our customers," says Akio Toyoda, executive vice president for purchasing and quality and a scion of the company's founding family. "These are the customers who selected Toyota thinking that Toyota vehicles would be safe."
The automaker's quality numbers are still high. In this year's J.D. Power Initial Quality Study in the United States, the top four brands in order were Porsche, Lexus, Hyundai and Toyota.
But lately, customers have had cause to doubt Toyota's quality. Last week, the company recalled 418,570 cars worldwide, all made in 2001. That includes 34,700 Priuses, Echos and other cars sold in the United States.
The problem is a faulty crankshaft position sensor that can stall the engine. The engine then cannot be restarted. Toyota says it is not aware of any accidents caused by the glitch.
Among other U.S. quality issues:
- Toyota this spring recalled 170,000 Priuses, or two of every three it had sold, because a portion of the steering shaft assembly could become loose or crack.
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating Toyota's Scion tC coupe, after receiving nine complaints that the car's glass sunroof can shatter.
- Toyota is recalling 367,600 Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX SUVs in the United States. A defective carpet clip could interfere with the accelerator.
In Japan, Toyota has recalled 1.1 million vehicles this year through Thursday, July 20. That's a big increase since 2002, when Toyota recalled 485,000 vehicles worldwide for the entire year.
One particular recall now haunts Toyota. It involves a defect in the steering assembly of 4Runner SUVs and T100 and Tacoma pickups, built between 1988 and 1996.
That problem caused a Hilux Surf, the Japan market's name for the 4Runner, to swerve and strike a car in the prefecture of Kumamoto in 2004. Five passengers in the other vehicle were injured.
Toyota had investigated the steering assembly in 1996. It altered the assembly for future vehicles but decided no recall was necessary.
After more complaints surfaced in 2004, Toyota reopened its investigation and issued a recall that year. The company recalled similar vehicles in the United States last September.
On Friday, July 21, Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transportation ordered Toyota to report by Aug. 1 on steps it is taking to improve its monitoring of defects. The ministry's regulators did not fine Toyota or rule that it had broken any laws.
Separately, though, Kumamoto police have asked prosecutors to issue warrants against the managers involved in the 1996 investigation.
Watanabe says Toyota has gained a sense of urgency to improve quality. "Without an improvement in quality, Toyota cannot expect to grow in the future," he says. "We are completely devoted to improving quality as quickly as possible."
One man, one job
Toyota has restructured to give quality more attention. Sasaki's predecessor as head of quality also headed the vehicle engineering group, future-project division and motor sports division. Now, quality is his sole task.
Last October, Toyota set up a Customer First Activities Program Committee to coordinate engineering, production, sales and service actions that affect quality. Watanabe leads it.
Toyota also has begun to gather data on vehicle owners' problems more quickly. In June, it began to track data on repairs after a car's warranty expires. It now keeps defect data for 10 years, instead of just five previously.
Toyota also will install a quality control system as part of a massive overhaul of its Takaoka plant. The system will track quality "every step of the way," Watanabe says.
Sasaki's immediate strategy for restoring Toyota's quality is to enlist the help of dealers. He urges Japanese customers to report any problems to their dealers.
"If you notice anything odd, let us know," he says. "Even if it only happens once, take it to your dealer."
You may e-mail James B. Treece at [email protected]