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Toyota Believe Tours

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In 2009 TNZ CEO Alistair Davis embarked on an 11-year programme to visit and present to every Toyota and Lexus retail Store in New Zealand. This became known as the ‘Believe Tour’ and was an established annual event in the company’s calendar under his tenure.

Here Alistair shares his thoughts on and motivation for how this came about.

Purpose

“The first thing you do when you become a CEO is decide what you’re going to do. You don’t need to make every decision – you employ good people to do that and give them the support they need. You choose where you’ll place an extra focus, and I decided that would be on the people and culture at Toyota. I’m fond of the Māori proverb ‘He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata’, which translates as ‘What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people’.

My intention was to bring our people closer together and, in particular, strengthen the relationships with our franchise retail Stores. Mark Young, TNZ’s Marketing Manager at the time, had developed a ‘Believe’ advertising campaign based on our core company values. These values could be used proactively as a culture and strategy tool, and this became the framework for the Tours.

Later the focus evolved into developing employees’ creative and collaborative thinking to find opportunities in and solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

Beginnings – laying the foundation

The question remained over how to do this. In the early days, there was only a limited number of forums for the Stores and TNZ to connect: periodic visits by TNZ staff to Stores, training events and conferences bringing together groups for specific occasions, and Dealer Council Meetings. All were useful but ended up being concentrated on just a small proportion of the wider Toyota/Lexus workforce. I wanted something more direct that could involve everyone and build a single, stronger team (which we now refer to as the ‘Toyota Family’).

In my first year as Chief Executive (2008), I explored different ways to engage with Toyota Stores. I visited different sites, walked around with their CEOs, had informal chats with random members of the workforce, and held full staff meetings in split shifts. But unfortunately, none of these approaches worked particularly well; our discussions failed to get beyond the usual immediate business concerns. It was difficult to dig deeper into underlying issues that could strengthen our culture and strategic collaboration.

I decided I should visit each and every dealership each year and talk to everybody in small groups (between 12 and 80, depending on the location). This would build a broader understanding of the business, give an opportunity for anyone to contribute to the discussion and provide a platform for evolving our relationships and team culture.

Visiting five corporate sites (including our sister company Toyota Financial Services) and more than 60 Stores, and presenting to nearly 2,000 people in total was a significant commitment of time (three months each year, with many sessions in evenings to allow a whole team to attend at once) and energy (each session was more than three hours in length), but I immediately felt it was the right approach. The first Tour proved a little difficult as we laid out the scope of what was planned and attempted to bridge the gap in our respective outlooks. But gradually we began to build momentum, and it got better and better as Stores and their people embraced it and became more involved.

Maturity – tackling complexity through simplicity

TNZ had some significant changes in the pipeline that would affect our traditional business model, but I was also aware of numerous ‘disrupters’ on the horizon (new technology, mobility changes, demographics, trade frictions, new retail paradigms, growing inequality and, most significant of all, climate change) that would challenge both our industry and society at large.

Ignoring these issues wouldn’t make them go away. It was clear to me that we’d need to confront them and find a way to steer our business forward. Our people would need to work closely together to succeed.

I’ve often reflected on John F Kennedy’s words. As President of the United States, he said you should only direct your full energies into two or three things a year. So, to be effective on our voyage I focused on plotting our course in manageable stages and making steady progress. Incidentally, this boating allegory is deliberate: in our early planning, teams were closely involved in a pictorial mapping of hazards and opportunities along a fictional watercourse. This ‘River of Change’ became an established part of our conversations at subsequent Tours.

A notable achievement was the setting up of inter-department ‘clans’ (see the 2019 case study 1, page 38) to work on some of the complex emerging issues that our business faces. Similar teams were established in Stores to help them tackle the challenges to their businesses.

Legacy

My goal for the Toyota Family on each of the annual Tours (which in 11 years totalled more than 500 shows) was to develop employees’ deeper understanding of Toyota and how their daily work fitted into a wider context. This meant taking them on a journey through different topics, and linking these to our history, stories and values in anticipation that our business ambitions would resonate with them and awaken in them the need for change in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world.

In the last couple of Believe Tours – as my retirement neared – I wanted the differing themes I’d presented each year to coalesce in employees’ minds, so they believed they were now very much part of one team and were empowered to take on the next evolution of the business with confidence.”