TEXT OF COMMENTARY
Kai Ryssdal: There’s this on the Toyota story to pass along today. The Transportation Department says it’s hearing from Toyota drivers, whose cars have already been repaired, that they’re still having problems. Acceleration of the unintended kind. No comment so far from the company on those new complaints.
These comments, though, from David Frum.
DAVID FRUM: Curiously shapeless, defiantly small, the first Toyota Corollas stood out amid the huge land yachts of the mid-1970s.
They said: I’m opting out of the Chevrolet-Oldsmobile-Buick status hierarchy. A car is transportation, that’s all. I want reliability and mileage, not the pseudo-luxury of Ricardo Montalban’s Corinthian leather.
It was not only the cars themselves that challenged Detroit: it was the way cars were made. Lifetime employment. Workers empowered to stop the line for a quality defect. Everyone eating in the same dining room, wearing the same coveralls. OK, the morning company calisthenics and anthem were a bit creepy, but otherwise, Toyota rebuked the worst practices of American labor-management relations.
Perhaps most important: In an era where the Ford Motor Company knowingly sold a fatally defective car, the Pinto, because it would cost too much to re-engineer it, Toyota epitomized quality above all.
A generation ago, Americans lived with a level of defect in their products almost unimaginable today. Refrigerator doors didn’t close properly. Toasters burned out after six months. Eight-track cassettes unspooled all over the passenger seat.
The yearning for something better made an unlikely folk hero of Edward Deming. He was an American statistician who had arrived in Japan to assist with the first postwar census. Deming argued that quality could be engineered into products. Japanese companies listened. “Made in Japan” — once a synonym for the cheap and breakable — became an international guarantee of reliability.
Only after losing to the Japanese did American companies accept Deming’s teachings. Zero defects began as a slogan, and grew into an expectation.
This global quality revolution was Toyota’s doing as much as any single company’s.
When those brakes slipped, they betrayed not only Toyota’s customers, but an ideal.
RYSSDAL: Commentator David Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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