Sunday, February 18, 2007

Toyota: the inevitable decline starts now

It's Toyota's PR person's dream: a front-page story in the Sunday New York Times magazine (by Jon Gertner), depicting your company as a comic-book superhero, slaying its competitors amid exclamatory sound effects (VVRRRMM!). And the article's teaser hailing your company as not only "not only the best automaker in the world but also maybe the best corporation."

The PR dream is the executive's nightmare. Not only is it difficult to build from the pinnacle Toyota has reached; it's impossible. The life cycle of industry titans lasts decades, but a life cycle it is. Ask NCR, Kodak, Xerox, Western Union, Sony.

Ask General Motors.

Forces beyond those under the control of any corporation conspire to bring it down, once it's reached such an apex. The forces are shifts in demographics, culture, science--more than technology. Somewhere out there, those forces are at work, humming below the range of hearing, undermining the business model that Toyota has perfected over the past fifty years.

And, no, it won't be a combined GM-Chrysler that eventually humbles Toyota. The US auto companies are deader than dead as far as the future's concerned. Instead it will be a new company, perhaps born in a rural area not unlike Toyota's home, failing humbly, learning lessons, remaining persistent, getting better, creating a vision for the far future, a vision far beyond the passenger automobile. Not unlike what Toyota itself once did.

Who are they? We'll know in twenty years' time.

(Illustration by Nathan Fox for the New York Times)

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