Last summer, a French Canadian in Ontario was surveying Toyota employees in North America about how to avoid a repeat of the company's recall crisis and prepare for future downturns.
That man, Real "Ray" Tanguay, the soft-spoken, silver-haired chairman of Toyota's Canadian operations, didn't like what they were telling him. Toyota employees, he discovered, felt cut off from the giant Japanese company that had only recently become the world's largest automaker.
Tanguay wondered whether that might have something to do with Toyota's recent spate of problems. And, indeed, the observations led him to draft the giant global plan for Toyota's future that President Akio Toyoda introduced last week.
"People had a hard time understanding how to connect with the company," said Tanguay, who speaks English with a slight French Canadian lilt.
So Tanguay went to Toyoda with a plan for how to fix it. His basic idea: Toyota employees needed a sense of mission and empowerment. And key elements would be more local decision-making and direct access to the top brass in Japan.
Toyoda was impressed enough that in September he lifted the 20-year Toyota veteran from relative obscurity and asked him to design the Toyota Global Vision business plan, which Toyoda unveiled Wednesday, March 9, in Tokyo.
The plan is mostly a collection of big theme goals and mission statements. But an important ingredient is moving more authority away from headquarters and closer to the market.
Tanguay concedes that assigning such a critical strategy to a foreign executive was a risky move for any Japanese company, let alone insular Toyota.
"If I were the president, I would feel that would be a risk to give the Global Vision leadership to somebody outside Japan," said Tanguay, 61, who grew up in remote Mattice in the far north of Ontario.
"I was selected because I made the biggest noise" about Toyota losing its way, he said.
The company's troubles were numerous and deep. It was still trying to recover from its first operating loss in seven decades when the global recall crisis struck.
Toyota had recalled millions of vehicles since fall of 2009 to address unintended acceleration and other problems. And its sales and reputation were getting hammered.
When Tanguay's final proposals for Global Vision reached Toyoda's desk in December, the president was so pleased with the execution that he promoted the Canadian. On April 1, Tanguay will become one of only three senior managing officers worldwide, making him Toyota Motor Corp.'s highest ranking non-Japanese. The position of senior managing officer itself is a newly created job just one rung below the board of directors.
Tanguay's rising star -- he's now one of Toyota's top 25 or so executives -- reflects efforts by Toyoda to internationalize the company and inject fresh, outside perspective into its upper echelons.
The company has had only one higher ranking outsider -- former U.S. sales boss Jim Press, the first non-Japanese board member. Press left the company in 2007, when the board had 30 members. The March 9 overhaul reduces it to 11, from a current count of 27.