04/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Toyota - Why It's all Happening Now

Be careful what you wish for.

Toyota aimed to be the biggest car-maker in the world, and since they achieved that goal through GM's bankruptcy, everything, it seems, has been going downhill for the pride of Toyota City (yep, that's where its Japanese HQ is located).

Toyota will eventually fix the cars, make sure new ones don't have these problems and things, the company hopes, will get back to normal.

But the family-run outfit, for the long-term, is terrible wounded. Not mortally, mind you, but there are already jokes about Toyota all over the Web and in late-night monologues and that sort of thing is not what the most conservative company in Japan can deal with.

In yesterday's Huffington Post, for instance, humorist Andy Borowitz revealed Toyota's new slogan: "Drive a Toyota. You'll Never Stop."

The problems and supposed fixes are myriad and confusing. More than eight million vehicles recalled worldwide; vehicles going out of production and taken off the sales lots while the company finally, perhaps honestly, deals with all this.

Last year the world wondered how GM could go bankrupt; now the world wonders how the company most-associated with product quality has failed so miserably to make their case, or to even seem open and honest.

What happened?

Learning a bit about Japanese corporate culture helps explain.

The Japanese government and their major corporations work very closely, more closely than Americans could imagine. In fact, these companies could be called "quasi-governmental."

Corporate "press conferences" in Japan are akin to kabuki; scripted, run as they've been for decades, with no questions from the press. A corporate statement, a bow, and that's it. If foreign press are in the room, sometimes questions will be taken ... but only from the foreigners.

But something shocking happened this week. At a press conference, Akio Toyoda, grandson of the founder and the first family member to run the company in a decade, bowed in apology and contrition to all of Japan.

And, more shocking, the media criticized his bow for not being deep enough. People don't literally fall on their swords anymore, as did the samurai. But a good show is expected when apology time comes calling (Toyoda himself is the subject of much rumor and speculation; many say he simply isn't up to the job).

These acceleration problems probably involve "drive-by-wire," an electronic rather than mechanical system for getting your right foot's intentions to the engine. Problems have been expected. There are so many RF signals in the engine bay that there is really no way to determine what might be broken in one or more systems.

It's almost impossible to duplicate the electronic "atmosphere" inside and out of a car when an electrical problem occurs. "Intermittent electronic problems" are the most frustrating (and hardest to pinpoint and fix) glitches in vehicles worldwide.

Cars use a wiring system called "multiplexing." This sends many different signals for many different systems on one wire, saving about 150 pounds in wiring harnesses. But there's a real danger of signals getting lost, mixed-up or working with the wrong systems. Combined with all the RF, the dangers are obvious, and frankly we may not be ready for all this high-tech just yet.

And who knows? The problem might be caused by electronics outside the car, like driving past a store with a burglar alarm can set off your radar detector.

A few years ago, Mercedes-Benz offered "brake-by-wire" in one of their models; this means the brake pedal connects to the braking system electronically, not mechanically. But here's what Mercedes did --- they had the brake-by-wire system in the car, but also retained the complete, familiar hydraulic system in case the wire system failed.

Toyota pioneered the "Q circle" system, which involved workers at all levels tackling problems in small groups. The "Toyota Way" became almost a religion within the car business.

While company founder Kiichiro Toyoda quietly visited car plants around the world when forming his company, pilgrimages to Toyota factories have become a necessity for executives from other car-makers.

Around 1985, I was part of a small group of US journos visiting a Daihatsu plant in Osaka; Daihatsu is owned by Toyota and is their small-car technology expert.

The plant was producing three completely different models for three different markets on one assembly line. I was standing next to the editor of one of the most important tech publications in the industry; he looked at me and said, "They can't be doing this. They're not doing this!" Yet there it was, right in front of our eyes. Not done in any other country at the time.

This is what many of us American car journos thought of the Japanese auto industry in the 1980s and '90s. It was simply, we thought, on another level.

Most of us didn't know at that time that the Japanese emphasis on quality and they way they achieved it was the brainchild of an American, Dr. W. Edwards Deming (Google him).

To us, Japan was almost holy, there was a near-reverence for those companies among US execs and journos.

As much as the company talks-up local control in various countries, in reality no major decisions for makes and models or anything else are made outside of Japan. For instance, when the American staff ends their workday at 5pm at Toyota's US HQ in Torrance, CA (right around the corner from American Honda), another staff, all Japanese, is just getting to work, burning up the phones between the US and Toyota in Japan.

But ultimately, the arrogance which comes with success and size, the government which was a partner and would never let a major company fail, Tokyo always pushing to keep their companies at the top worldwide, the home market press which literally never asks questions, technology which may well be ahead of the engineers' ability to tame it and a strict discipline which is honored, but makes change a slow-moving thing have all contributed to Toyota's problems.

As much as we believe change may come swift and sure in Japanese companies and that every worker has a legitimate, respected voice, consider this: In America, we say the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The Japanese version is: The nail which stands out gets hammered the hardest.