/ Toyota: When the Straight-A student Gets Caught Cheating.

When the news broke about Toyota’s recall, I felt like I used to feel when I was a teacher and the smart, disciplined student who always sat in the front row cheated for the first time.

Then, the details unfolded. The narrative shifted. What was once a tale of Toyota’s fall from grace devolved into an epic of customer betrayal, as the media reported incidents of Toyota’s lack of responsiveness to customer complaints. For years, the straight-A brand had been making decisions not guided by its commitment to transparency and safety. As the  President of Toyota said during congressional hearings this week, “We lost sight of our customers.”

Like Toyota, my straight-A student had been having problems for years. She’d been allowing other students to copy her work. In fact, she was somewhat relieved at being caught. She could finally talk about the problem of peer and academic pressure. I told her that everyone makes mistakes — it’s how we learn and grow from those mistakes that makes us leaders.

I am, by no means, calling the Toyota recall a “sophomoric” mistake. Toyota’s eight-million car recall has planted the seed of doubt and paranoia among customers.

But, Toyota can still lead. Like my straight-A student, Toyota has been influenced by the pressure to perform at all costs. We have heard about capacity issues that impacted the quality of Toyota’s production. And, we know that large-scale business crises are often the product of a short-term focus on quarterly results instead of the long-term brand strategy and promise.

In one sense, Toyota is already helping competitors learn from its hard knocks. That leadership should frame a new story about the brand. I’d like to see Toyota start talking about how it will lead a movement to bridge the gap between innovation and safety in the automotive industry.

The automotive industry can still learn from Toyota, and the brand can lead again. (Incidentally, my straight-A student is about to graduate from Skidmore College at the top of her class.) But, Toyota needs more than time to fix the breach in customer trust. Toyota must be and lead the change customers want to see.

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