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Toto Toilet

You thought I was kidding when I said I would do an entire podcast about toilets, but you were wrong. Here’s what Japanese toilets taught me about the auto industry.

Play Episode (recommended for maximum loud, funny, ranting):

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Konnichiwa, boys and girls. Today I’ll do my final podcast about my trip to Japan. Previously I’ve covered a dozen marketing and cultural observations about Japan and why Japan is the king of customer service. So if you haven’t seen those yet, check ‘em out.

But another thing that really struck me was the Japanese bathrooms.  Don’t worry, I’m going to keep the language, um, out of the gutter, but when I started thinking about how to broach this topic, somehow the US auto industry came to mind, which of course, is going down the toilet.

But along the way, think about how the topics I discuss apply to ANY business.

So let me rant about five things involving toilets, and cars…

1)    Evolution
Think about the toilet in your apartment. Think about the toilet at your office. Think about the toilet at your parent’s house. Think about the toilet you had when you were 5 years old. What do they have in common? EVERYTHING. They’re exactly the same.

For me, with the exception of my unrenovated 60s era apartment in Seattle in which the toilet was a bright canary yellow, every single one was basically the same, a white ceramic bowl with a white ceramic cover with a white lid.  OK, maybe at my mom’s house there’d be a furry blue cover or a red and green one with Santa on it during the holidays, but they were all the same.

Which is why it’s so striking when you go to Japan, because the toilets are unlike anything you’ve ever seen. They seem so evolved. I’ll talk about how in a second.

Toto Toilet Headquarters

Now lets compare cars from the US and Japan.

I’m not going to rip the US car industry and say that they’ve never evolved, but look at something like a Jeep Cherokee from the 80s compared to now. Are they really that different? Now pick a Japanese care and do the same thing.

You want a rant about car evolution? Listen, I don’t know if it was a Japanese company or an American company that finally figured this one out, but how about accidentally leaving your lights on and draining your car battery.

How many of you are nodding your head right now, shuddering about the time you left the lights on in your car, went into a friend’s house or the football game or whatnot, and when you came out, your lights were on, and your battery was dead.

Really? We couldn’t figure this one out? Not a single engineer for years and years and years and years spoke up and said, you know, there’s really no need to have your lights stay on, why don’t we make it so that when you shut the car off, it shuts your lights off?

What happened to that guy? Did he get fired on the spot?  Did they lock him in a basement in Flint, Michigan?  Really? You mean to tell me that no one thought this was a good idea?

Think about that… think about how many thousands of lost productivity hours there were from people that couldn’t get to work. Think about all the dangerous situations people were put in stranded at night in a parking lot. Think about all the nice couples having brutal fights as the frustration mounted. Think about all the annoying announcements in department stores ‘Would the owner of a blue Plymouth Reliant, license plate 147-PFH please return to your car, your lights are on.’

My theory is that there was a powerful mafia organization built around Sears Diehard batteries and the jumper cable industry.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if all American cars evolved past that 20 years ago?

And two quick ones: when I was in high school in the 80s, we had our standard American cars, but my friend’s family bought a Subaru station wagon. And I was struck by two things on the dashboard. First, the heat controls were nice, round, clearly marked dials that you could twist easily, not difficult sliding levers.

And second, the hazard lights were simply a triangle on the dash that you pushed. Press once, the hazards were on. Press again, they were off. On American cars, you sometimes had to do a 2-step process to turn on the hazards, and sometimes it was located under the steering column. Again, really? They’re HAZARD LIGHTS. Who thought, well, if someone needs the hazard lights, it’s probably a stressful, emergency situation. Let’s hide the switch and make it difficult to engage!

2)    Mechanical breakdowns
Ever have to unjam a stopped up toilet? Is there any greater fear – any greater fear? – then when you’re at your rich friend’s house and they have like 6-ply, 300-thread count Egyptian-weave toilet paper and you flush and it starts to get stuck and the water is rising and your heart stops because it looks like it might overflow? Ever use a snake? Or a plunger? Or deal with a plumber? Or have to take the cover off to inspect the ball and chain mechanism? Or have a toilet keep running forever? Not good times.

My point is? Shouldn’t we have figured this out by now?  According to wikipedia, toilets were invented in 2800 BC.  Shouldn’t plumbers be out of business? I can’t say for sure that the newer Japanese toilets work any better, but just check out the video on TheHopkinsonReport.com. They’re at least trying. They’ve got a freaking vortex going.

As far as mechanical breakdowns for cars, the story has been told many times. Now don’t write me angry emails… I don’t have JD Power and Associates on retainer to fill my head with data. But I think most would agree that although the US has made great strides and some companies and some models have caught up in quality, Japanese cars consistently had fewer mechanical problems than US cars over the years.

3)    Customer service

Let me say three words and tell me what images it conjures up: Used. Car. Dealer.  What about bringing the car to the shop? What about dealing with mechanics? What about your confidence level that you’re getting a good deal when buying a car?  Few people rave about the history of customer service in the US auto industry.

Japanese Girls Customer Service

And hey, I can’t speak to the car buying experience in Japan, but when every single customer interaction in the entire country for me was a good one? I’ll take my chances that car shopping isn’t too bad either.

So what about the buying process for toilets? In the US, how does one even buy a toilet? Well, you’re either dealing with the folks at Home Depot – if you can get someone to come to aisle 17 – or you’re dealing with a general housing contractor. Hmmm… do they fall above used car dealer or below?

But in Japan? I am horribly embarrassed to say that on my vacation, I took a tour of the Toto Toilet Headquarters. HEY! It was recommended in the freaking Lonely Planet guide next to museums and other attractions!

Demo video of high-tech, green, Japanese toilet from Jim Hopkinson on Vimeo.

And you know what? It didn’t disappoint!  It was like an IKEA, but 10 times better.  They had kitchens and sinks and bathrooms with LCD TVs in the tub.  Granted, there were no Swedish meatballs, but…
•    They had before and after makeovers showing how their products could increase efficiency in your house
•    A team of three attractive Japanese girls giggled, laughed, and bent over backwards giving me a rundown of products in their catalog
•    A man dressed like a scientist gave me a personal tour or their newest models
•    At the end of the mini tour, they gave out free gifts!

4)    Going greenHigh Tech Bathroom
You don’t have to be Al Gore to know that American auto companies fought vigorously against hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles over the past few decades in favor of giant gas-guzzling SUVs that padded their bottom line. Just think of the leadership position they’d be in right now if they were forward thinking. Instead, when I hear the word ‘Hybrid,’ I think Toyota Prius. They’re way ahead and we’re playing catch-up.

As far as toilets go, I know there have been advances in basic US toilets which use fewer gallons of per flush and thus conserve water. But, I’ve also heard that they aren’t as strong, so sometimes you have to flush twice, thus not saving water at all. I’ve also heard stories of people paying off contractors to get the ‘old kind.’

But I do know this.  In the demo the guy gave me in Japan, the new model shoots the water around in a Bermuda-triangle-esque vortex, and they had some fancy meter hooked up that measured the force of the flush. Put it this way, hold onto your iPhone because if you drop it by mistake, it’s never coming back.

5)    Technology
In the auto industry, I have to applaud both sides of the globe for the advances in the past 25 years. Cars can be driven longer and longer, they break down less, and antilock brakes, crumple zones, and airbags are saving lives.

But in the bathroom, it’s a different story.

In the United States, I feel we’ve taken a giant leap backwards. I don’t know whose fault it was, but it has been decided that no American can be trusted to simply turn on a faucet, turn it off when we’re done, and use enough paper towels to dry our hands.

TheHopkinsonReport.com looks at High Tech Control Panels on Japanese Toilets from Jim Hopkinson on Vimeo.

Oh no. We must all be treated like idiots and punished. We’re forced to succumb to some crazy dance where we have to wave our hands in front of infrared sensors, push a knob and wash our hands in 3 seconds flat, dry our hands with half a sheet of gauze, or blow cold air on our wet hands before wiping them on our pants. It’s really quite sad.

— OK, stop the podcast. This is unprecedented. I recorded this podcast on a Tuesday night, and was editing on a Wednesday night, and I was still so fired up about this, I plugged in the mic and added even MORE ranting. Does NO ONE see a problem with this? Does anyone care? I challenge ANYONE … ANYONE! … to show me an automated system that does the following 4 things perfectly
1) as soon as I wave my hands a single time at the sensor, the water immediately turns on
2) the water is the right temperature and comes out hard enough to wash the soap off, but not so hard that it splashes
3) as soon as I wave my hands a single time at the dryer sensor, a paper towel immediately comes out
4) The paper towel I get is substantial enough to dry my hands in a single use – I don’t have to get another sheet, and I don’t have to wipe my hands on my pants
— OK, back to the podcast

But not in Japan.

•    Let’s start with every toilet having a heated seat. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t like heated seats in their car. Why not have it in the john?
•    How about an electronic control panel on the wall instead of that clangy metal knob
•    How about an electronic sensor that will automatically raise and lower the seat. That argument between men and women has been around since the dawn of time. Not anymore.
•    And the water jets? Don’t knock it till you try it.
•    So when you read about other options such as auto flushing, blow dryers, deodorizing fans, and artificial flushing sounds, it sounds like you’re comparing a brand new, top of the line 2009 Infiniti or Lexus to a 2001 Pontiac Aztec.

Pontiac Aztek (photo via Wikipedia)

So in the end, what did we learn here? I covered:
•    Continually evolving your product
•    Maintaining product quality
•    Superior Customer Service
•    Operating in an environmentally friendly way
•    Keeping up with new technology

What I’m trying to get across, is that it doesn’t matter if you’re making Toto Toilets or Toyota Tundras, these qualities are necessary for ANY business to succeed.

So in the end, was I able to do an entire podcast about toilets? You bet your ass I was.

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