In 1992, Toyota, brimming full of the confidence of competence it announced the Earth Charter, outlining goals to develop vehicles with the lowest pollution possible. Not just low pollution. Not just the lowest pollution in the industry. Hear the ambition talking. Toyota wanted to compete with impossible.
It takes time and a lot of work to change history. Over the next two years, Toyota moved from their paper adaptation to a specific goal of building a hyper-efficient modern green car rather than a curiosity or monstrosity.
The general manager of engineering dived into the project as chief engineer of the new car. In 1995, they unveiled their prototype hybrid electric–petrol car at the 31st Tokyo motor show. The team named it in Latin – Prius – because they got there before anyone else.
The Detroit Three preferred to keep churning out vehicles that were bigger, heavier and more damaging to the environment than do something better. They ignored trends they knew about. GM sold the gas-guzzling, 6000 pound, 10 mile to the gallon pimp-mobile Hummer Not to be outdone, Ford sold the 7000 pound Excursion, the longest, heaviest sports utility vehicle ever made.
Detroit City played a self-defeating game of denial chicken. The year-on- year damage to their market share, erosion of profit margins, buying sales through excessive promotions and unsustainable cheap financing were all put to one side. This was a long emergency. The crash was never going to happen.
By 2008, of course, the financial system had crashed, and GM and Chrysler were forced to go begging cap in hand to Washington DC, capital of the richest country in the world, the political home of capitalism. Meanwhile, the Toyota Prius had sold more than 1 million vehicles and within just two more years, worldwide sales had reached 2 million vehicles.
Even after the success of the Prius it was mocked by a certain group of naysayers. US radio broadcaster, Rush Limbaugh, self-described ‘most dangerous man in America’, felt those who bought the car were ‘liberals think they’re ahead of the game on these things, and they’re just suckers’. Even after its success, he went on to suggest Japan was hit by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011 because Mother Nature was angry about the Prius.
Enthusiastic ignorance is dangerous to enlightened adaptation. Nations and organizations are damaged by this type of maladaptation. Believing science is a conspiracy, sharing is unpatriotic and honesty is selling out, these beliefs keep people losing in the past rather than creating new winning futures.
The Prius required adaptability before the fact. It was preemptive creativity driven by curiosity as much as by necessity. It qualifies as original because it was a non-obvious answer to an obvious question. Toyota people recognized changing patterns from science, economic scarcity and needs for customer self-expression. They noticed this changing pattern and then put in the effort to understand how to adapt years before the competition. They were able to make moves at the genetic level of adaptation.The Toyota people let their ambition do their talking.
(This is an Excerpt from Adaptability by Max Mckeown)