There has been much speculation about what went wrong and what is still right at Toyota.   It has even been suggested that Toyota may have become blinded by the desire to be the number 1 automaker in the world.  This suggests that quality and quantity are interelated and that one will suffer at the expense of the other.  We would argue that this is simply not true in this case.  The question is, “What failed?”  Was it the product or the process?

Background Video:

We found an informative video about the Toyota acceleration issue that provides a little more insight than you may have read in the papers.   Click here to watch the video:

An Expert Opinion

We received another e-mail from Steven J. Spear, author of “Chasing the Rabbit“, that presents his perspective on what went “wrong” at Toyota.  Steven identifies 3 strategic areas that Toyota will need to address.  As we stated earlier, we don’t support the idea that Toyota grew too quickly.  The ability to effectively and efficiently produce  a product in mass quantities may be more challenging for the manufacturers but this should not have an impact the design or function of the product itself.

If a manufacturing defect was found to be the reason for the recall, we would agree that growth and increased demand for product may be a factor.  We’ve all been in situations where overtime is required to meet demand and the effect (stress and fatigue) this can have on employees over extended periods of time can be cause for concern.  All reports suggest that the recent flurry of recalls are driven by design or design related issues – NOT how quickly or how many vehicles were actually made.

The e-mail from Steven Spear follows:

Dear Colleagues,
What went wrong with Toyota is the flip side of what went right over so many decades. In the late 1950s or 1960s, Toyota was a pretty cruddy car company. The variety was meager, quality was poor, and their production efficiency was abysmal.
Yet by the time they hit everyone’s radar in the 1980s, they had very high quality and unmatched productivity. The way they got there was by creating within Toyota exceptionally aggressive learning. They taught employees specialties, but more importantly, they taught people to pay very close attention to the “weak signals” the products and processes were sending back about design flaws, and then responding with high-speed, compressed learning cycles to take things that were poorly understood and convert them into things that were understood quite deeply.
That allowed Toyota to come from behind, race through the pack, and establish itself as the standard-setter on quality and efficiency and complex technology. But since then, things have affected Toyota in terms of their ability to sustain this kind of aggressive learning. 
These include:
·      A rapid expansion in the number of people who had to be developed into aggressive learners with faster rates of business growth.
·      A rapid increase in the need for aggressive learning as the technological complexity of products and plants increased as well.
For more on this problem of overburdening the innovative capacity of an organization, please see my interview, “3 Questions: Steven Spear on Toyota’s Troubles,” conducted by the MIT News Office.
Best wishes,
Steve Spear

• “3 Questions: Steven Spear on Toyota’s Troubles,
   Interview with MIT News Office.
• “Toyota: Too Big, Too Fast,” by Gordon Pitts
   in The Globe and Mail (February 5, 2010)
• “Learning from Toyota’s Stumble,”
   e-article at HarvardBusiness.Org.
  for preface, forward, intro, and blog.

Click here to get your copy of Chasing the Rabbit!

Our Opinion

We would support the idea that Toyota must revisit their advanced engineering and design processes to make sure that products released for production and the public in general are safe and robust.  If there is any weakness in the problem solving community, it may just be the disconnect between events that occur in the real world and the events that the Toyota engineering and design communities choose to acknowledge.  We would also suggest that any event that results in the loss of human life must be immediately and thoroughly investigated and evaluated.  To this end, perhaps Toyota’s size is compounded to maintain an effective communication strategy and is another area that should be revisited.

Tragedies occur on our highways every day and some of us may be tempted to categorize many of these accidents as “operator error”.  We have learned by working with Toyota and other automotive companies that “operator error” is not an acceptable root cause.  What is it that the operator did or didn’t do and, of course, why?  Consistent with Toyota’s “Plan versus Actual” thinking, the Advanced Design, Development, and Engineering strategy will be subject to a significant transformation as Toyota reflects on this experience.

Toyota has done a remarkable job of instituting manufacturing processes that we now know as lean.  In this respect, it is important not to confuse Toyota’s manufacturing strategy with design of the product itself.  Although design and process recalls may be related they can also be separable and unique.  Maple Leaf Foods announced a significant recall when deaths were linked to meat products found to be contaminated with listeriosis.  The recall in this case was directly attributed to the cleanliness of the equipment (process).  Stork Craft Drop-Side Cribs were also subject to recall in November of 2009 for products with manufacture and distribution dates spanning almost 16 years.  In this case, the product design, material selection, and installation methods were at fault.  History is rife with examples, including many from the original North American (Detroit) automakers.  

Most companies take responsibility for the quality of the products and services they provide.  We don’t accept the idea that, as consumers, we are vulnerable to a company’s ability to meet demand.  We expect Quality and Quantity – not one or the other.

Now that the Olympics have started, there will be other news that will keep us pre-occupied for the next few weeks.  During this time, the automakers can fix their respective problems and start selling cars again.

 Until Next Time – STAY lean!

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