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Shaken to the Core: What FDA and FDA-Regulated Companies Can Learn from Toyota

I do not believe that Toyota became a global success by cutting corners and ignoring safety concerns. Nonetheless, the company may not survive the investigations, the lawsuits, the civil and criminal fines, the securities litigation, the recalls (8.5 million cars so far), the loss of consumer confidence and the possible criminal indictments.

FDA Matters hopes that the CEO’s of FDA-regulated companies are paying attention. They need to understand that their company can be “shaken to the core,” as Toyota has.

What’s a CEO to do?

First and foremost, believe (really believe) that bad things can happen to you and your company. Being FDA-regulated means “always worrying that you will have to say you’re sorry.” Foods, drugs and devices are central to our everyday life. By their nature, problems are to be expected. Deadly consequences are never more than one mistake or misjudgment away.

Don’t assume that you can limit the damage. Problems escalated quickly for Toyota, revealing flaws in the company’s process and attitude, not just its products. Most of the product lines are involved. And concerns keep multiplying, while confidence dwindles in the company’s ability to fix the problems.

Recognize that “the buck stops here.” Congress and the media are fascinated by what Mr. Toyoda knew and when he knew it. But it is quite beside the point. His public humiliation and the likely ruin of the Toyota brand are going to occur regardless of his level of knowledge. The CEO is responsible and will be held accountable for the actions and failures of all the company’s employees and vendors.

Trust, but verify. In a large, multi-national company, there are an endless number of decisions.

Hiring good people and delegating is “necessary but not sufficient.” Even the best employees find it difficult to tell their boss about a serious issue that might require costly pre-emptive action. It’s too easy for them to think: last year’s worst fears never materialized, so maybe today’s concerns won’t turn out to be bad either.

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Everyone wants to be part of the team–to believe in the product they are creating. It becomes hard to be objective about the good and bad points of what one’s company and team are doing. The CEO needs to believe the worst is possible, ask the tough questions and be skeptical when everyone responds “we’re okay.”

Your crisis management plan is not enough. Crisis planning is a step-child of corporate communications. Not enough companies have such plans and even fewer take them seriously enough to practice and update them. I doubt many companies have well-honed plans that prepare them to deal with multi-system failure.

In a hurricane of adversity, it is unavoidable that companies will be “shaken to the core.” As with real storms, the survivors will be those who built sounder structures, monitored performance closely, and put plans in place for the “once in a hundred years” event that devastates everything.

Such preparation does not happen naturally and cannot be delayed until the storm clouds appear.

However, CEO’s can commit to running “shaken to the core” reviews—to anticipate and prevent problems, as well as prepare for dealing with the worst. FDA Matters sees at least three keys to success in this type of “360 degree” inquiry:

  • no person, project, product, or process can be protected from review,
  • employees need to know that they can speak up confidentially and without fear of reprisal, and
  • outside experts are needed to perform reviews and audits, because no one can be sufficiently objective about their own work or team.

And yes, FDA Commissioner Hamburg is a CEO….. and this column applies to FDA as much as it does to any FDA-regulated company.


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