New Toyota quality team finding faster ways to hear from customers

GEORGETOWN — Toyota's chief quality officer for North America said Tuesday that his role is evolving as the automaker seeks ways to more quickly receive information about potential problems with vehicles.

Steve St. Angelo, who is also chairman of the Georgetown plant, said his quality team is developing ways to hear from customers more quickly. For example, the team searches Facebook, Twitter and other social networks "to see what people are saying about our cars."

"We're working out how to get the information faster, so we can do faster analysis and put faster countermeasures in place," St. Angelo said from his Georgetown office while there for the launch of the 2012 Camry on Tuesday. "It'll help us improve our current customers' vehicles and future vehicles being built. That's a new key to success."

The expanded focus shows how the quality officer's role has evolved since Toyota President Akio Toyoda created the job and chose St. Angelo for it in March 2010. St. Angelo has the authority to initiate recalls when his team finds problems with cars.

"When I took over this job, Akio Toyoda told me, 'You've got to do what you've got to do. You'll never put the customers' safety in jeopardy. If something is black and white, you take fast action. If something is gray, you go look at it deeply and make your own decision,'" St. Angelo said. "Did we make a lot of recalls? Yes. Did we overreach? People can criticize me for doing so many recalls, but you can't criticize me for protecting our customers."

St. Angelo said the company's focus on quality shows if one examines the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's list of current defect investigations. Of the 43 investigations listed in July, only two were for Toyotas, and one of those investigations was closed.

Toyoda, who visited the Georgetown plant Tuesday, told the Herald-Leader that St. Angelo "is exceeding my expectations" in the new role.

"The depth of communications, the timing of that is unsurpassed," Toyoda said through a translator. "What's unique about Steve is he always places himself in gemba," a Japanese term referring to the actual site of an event, such as the factory floor.

"He looks at everything from a person's perspective and places himself in those positions," Toyoda said.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader