Even Toyota Has to Learn to Listen Better to Its Customers

January 5, 2018 • Blog • Boaz Tamir

Toyota’s declaration of purpose: “To bring and keep customers through high-quality products and services and a fantastic user-experience.”

My faith in Toyota’s purpose and vision has made me a loyal customer.  Not only have I and my family enjoyed riding safely and without problems in Toyotas for years and across thousands of miles – I have also learned and adopted the company’s managerial principles and translated them into practice in the development of Lean thinking.  Yet recently, I was reminded that even a company with experience in creating value for its customer can sometimes disappoint.

Something Went Wrong

Since Toyota cars are reliable and sturdy, I prefer to purchase a two- or three-year-old Toyota and then keep it for about ten years.  Not long ago, I purchased a 2015 Toyota Camry. The seller was trustworthy and the car had served him well across tens of thousands of miles and had been properly maintained and serviced.  At first glance, the car looked great, and the test drive for the hybrid car made me smile.  But on the way home, as I was settling into the drivers’ seat and getting ready to try out the sophisticated multi-media system (with its ten or more speakers surrounding me), I suddenly heard a horrible screech that reminded me of the transistors of my youth.

This is not possible, I said to myself. Not in a Toyota.  I felt frustrated, as you do when you find out that you have damaged goods.  There wasn’t even a hint of the purpose of Toyota’s “high-quality product and fantastic user-experience.”  I was amazed –  only two months earlier, in a meeting with Masato Katsumata, Chief Engineer for Toyota’s intermediate cars (the Avalon and the Camry), he had left me with no doubt about the purpose of his products: to create a high-quality (“extraordinary”), environmental-friendly driving experience. It is inconceivable, I told myself, that the multi-media system, which is the primary user-interface in the car, had been built shoddily.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to set the quality of the sound, or at least to find the off button, and I almost caused an accident. The screen looked like it should have been in the cockpit of a plane:  lots of buttons, diagrams, graphs, and professional terms that I don’t have a clue how to use.  In the glove compartment, I found the multi-media manual (see picture), which included 37 pages of letters and words that I couldn’t make out.  I had driven in Toyota’s previous models, and the systems had always been simple, effective and user-friendly.

The next day, I took the car to the authorized multi-media dealer in Israel in order to replace the system.  The service was impeccable and courteous. A senior technician promised me that the problem would be fixed within a few hours, then added that if I was willing to invest around a thousand US dollar, he would put in an upgraded system: “You won’t want to get out of the car….” I wondered if the Toyota’s Chief Engineer’s team had intended for every driver to satisfy his or hers’ user experience?

They Forgot the Customer

Based on my LPPD thinking, and since I regularly deal with the purpose of a value proposition and its translation into a custom-fit product for the customer, I was curious about this problem.  So I decided to investigate the source of this exception to Toyota’s accepted standards.  I found out that Toyota’s representative in Israel did not understand the company’s view of product development, which had formed the basis for the Lean view of product development. The adaptation of the Camry to the Israeli driver (the system interface is Hebrew) had been implemented based on the viewpoint and professional understanding of the local multimedia supplier in an attempt to bring the Israeli customer to purchase a “professional” multi-media product, whose quality could be measured in the number of buttons (I counted up to 100 before I gave up) and the dozens of features for which most of the customer have never use. The people inserting the system didn’t take into account that most of the drivers don’t need all those options, and that dealing with a complicated and unfriendly system while driving can also be dangerous.

A Garbage Pile of Waste

Lack of understanding or real empathy for the customer’s needs led hundreds of engineers to design a sophisticated multi-media system in a process that could serve as a model of efficiency according to the highest standards of Toyota’s suppliers throughout the world; yet, at the bottom of the value stream, the customer, squeaks and screeches were all that was left.

The driver experience in the product I had bought was no longer attractive.  Hundreds of thousands of development, engineering, manufacturing suppliers and marketing personnel, who had really tried, solved problems, made improvements and even created a global personal service system – and this customers frown was all they got for their troubles.  The entire system became a victim of an upstream design strategy that had abandoned the principles of LPPD development.

True, my problem hasn’t been solved yet, but I do have full trust in the product development system and the people who are responsible for Toyota’s value stream.  The minute this problem reaches the people who are responsible for maintaining contact with the customers and learning from their feedback, I am sure that they will be thankful for my loyalty and my part in the fulfillment of their vision.  I hope that the people at the Israeli Toyota dealer won’t see me as an annoying customer, but rather as a partner whose criticism can be translated into a valuable contribution to the effort to adjust the product to the customer’s wants.  As far as I am concerned, as one who deals with innovation and the design and development of products and services, I learned an important lesson:  Creating value for the customer is not a one-way street from the supplier to the customer; it should be a partnership between the manufacturer, the supportive suppliers and the customers themselves.

Boaz Tamir, ILE.

Read Richard Sheridan’s comment on this post.

One response to “Even Toyota Has to Learn to Listen Better to Its Customers”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this post, Boaz. In the end, I guess we can state that the success of all of our efforts in our companies become a matter of the customer experience. In the case of you and your Toyota, it wasn’t a good one. And, as Rich pointed out separately, the auto industry is still finding its way with infotainment systems. That’s what progress is about – struggle.

    Also, for many years observers have noted that Toyota brand dealer experiences are often below industry average – and industry average is terrible!

    I am puzzled, though, by your assignment of cause. You attribute your bad customer experience with “lack of understanding or real empathy for the customer’s needs” on the part of the CE. I can easily imagine other probable causes. What other possible causes did you consider and why did you choose to assign this problem to the CE’s “lack of empathy”?

    Thanks again for sharing your experience and thoughts.


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