In the midst of the massive recall effort Toyota faced in 2010 over sticking accelerator pedals, Zack Hicks was brought in as CIO of Toyota Motor Sales USA. “It was like a nightmare,” Hicks said of the atmosphere at the time, as top executives were trotted before lawmakers to answer often angry and accusatory questions about what they knew and when they knew it.

“It was a tough time,” seeing executives be accused of knowing things that Hicks knew they did not know, he told an audience at the CIO 100 Symposium & Awards event in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Rather than wallow in despair, Hicks decided to try to help. He had a business intelligence tool in house from Endeca and downloaded reams of data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration database regarding customer complaints. He took that data and overlayed it on the business intelligence tool along with similar data from Toyota’s own warranty claims and customer call center. The results provided a starkly different view of the situation from what was being reported in the press.

He tried to take his findings to a Toyota executive but couldn’t get his ear. “Zack, our hair’s on fire, I don’t have time for an IT project,” Hicks recalls the executive saying.

Undaunted, Hicks continued to mine his data and remained convinced his findings could help the company out of the recall quagmire. “I was really overzealous,” he said. “I was like a guy who had found religion and would preach to anyone who would listen.”

One day, Hicks cornered Toyota USA’s president, James Lentz, in the hall and succeeded in convincing him to sit through a demonstration, so Hicks could show him what he was finding out. Lentz came away impressed, and ordered Hicks to make the same presentation to each of the Lentz’s direct reports.

The episode “was turning point [for IT] to be seen as innovator and solution provider,” Hicks said. Asked whether that view has since been sustained, he said, “It’s certainly changing the conversation.”

One example: Toyota has a telematics effort underway to develop new features by connecting to the in-vehicle networks in its cars and trucks. One effort, for example, is to provide service alerts while another will work with smart phones to lock the phone for safety, but allow voice-activated use of services such as OpenTable, so drivers can find nearby restaurants and make reservations while they drive – without taking their hands off the wheel.

Describing himself as “hypersensitive” about allowing connection to the in-vehicle network, Hicks raised concerns about safety and keeping out any unauthorized links. Consequently, IT was tapped to take the lead on the project and ensure such concerns are addressed.

That’s just one example of how IT today has more credibility at Toyota and is looked upon as “more of a business enabler than an order taker,” he said.

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