Toyota Recall Highlights: Innovation gone too far?

Once upon a time, to start your Toyota Camry, you placed a key in the ignition and turned until the electrical connection was made and engine started.

To accelerate, you pressed the gas pedal, which pulled a cable attached to a mechanical throttle. Assuming the shift had been manually placed into gear – the car moved.

Today, electronics and computers have replaced many of the mechanical parts that once made cars move. To start many cars or place them in gear, buttons are pushed. To accelerate, the gas pedal is connected not to a cable, but to a computer – via electronic circuitry.

In light of Toyota’s massive recall of 10 million of Camry, Tercel, Prius hybrid and luxury Lexus models (and that’s a shortened list), one has to wonder: At what point does “innovation” encourage failure ?

In other words, has Toyota gone too far? In the interest of fairness, these issues potentially affect any modern automobile. Already, GM is facing recalls related to steering.

The costs – in terms of finances and consumer confidence – can be great. As Toyota mechanics are correcting millions of cars and consumer confidence lags, rival automakers have reported double-digit sales growth.

But the question of innovation for innovation’s sake – or for the sake of “technological evolution” – begs to be asked. Sure, innovation of the vehicle and the way it’s manufactured cuts costs, including labor and benefits. We continually innovate to cost reduce. But now, cars don’t just turn on with the turn of a key. And when they don’t roar to life as expected, the corner mechanic must be trained not only in auto repair, but in computers technology (assuming he or she owns the equipment).

This reminds me of a story. It was the 1970s. Two adventurers once were traveling by pick-up truck in northern Mexico when their vehicle broke down. The local mechanic took a look under the hood, grabbed a coffee can of old parts, and fashioned a fix.

How does this all relate to the innovation imperatives? In Robert’s Rules of Innovation, it mentions two key imperatives that seem to have gone awry here. First, Toyota sought the imperative of value creation in pursuit of innovation. Yet, any value created through their innovation-gone-awry is more than lost through the recall and labor costs and lost sales and good will.

Second, who has been held accountable? After first declining to do so, Toyota President Akio Toyoda made a very public appearance on Capitol Hill. He apologized and promised to “do everything in my power” to ensure the malfunctions and tragedies don’t happen again. Do Americans buy it? Can Toyota afford to wait and wonder?

To that end, the complexity of the conundrum facing Toyota at one point was belied by the simplicity of their first apparent fix. After spending days in conference over how to remedy the stuck throttle, high-paid engineers came up with a simple solution: Shorten the gas pedal.

To be sure, in the end, the issues facing the automaker were far more complex than nipping an inch off a too-long pedal. But could the issues have been remedied in the designer’s or accountant’s office years ago – when the company believed innovation would save money?

We – and Toyota – may never know. But we’ve learned that innovation poorly planned can have the greatest expectations, but the worst outcomes.

By Robert Brands with Jeff Zbar

Robert Brands is the founder of InnovationCoach.com, and the author of “Robert’s Rules of Innovation”: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival, with Martin Kleinman and which will be published in March by Wiley (www.robertsrulesofinnovation.com).