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Jeff Liker

Jeff Liker: Toyota’s response demonstrated the Toyota Way at its best

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Sunday, February 13, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

The events that led up to the Toyota recall crisis and all the false accusations about Toyota’s ethics, concern for safety, and specific defects that cause sudden unintended acceleration were nothing short of bizarre.  As we look back at this ten years from now it will be interpreted as an Audi-like witch hunt that seems to happen mostly in the United States.  It had many of the same elements:  no underlying defect causing runaway cars, news investigations that stage sensational-looking acceleration events, ambulance-chasing attorneys licking their chops, and a foreign auto maker that was free game for the government and media.  Throughout this process Toyota was following every fact, every detail, and they knew from the very beginning that there were no serious technical problems in Toyota vehicles causing unsafe conditions.  In fact a big problem was that the Japanese quality and public relations officials in Japan were so confident there were no electronic problems and that SUA was a myth they did not want to even address the problem and asked Toyota executives in America to handle it as a regional problem pretty much on their own.

In many ways Toyota’s response was exemplary and the best of the Toyota Way.  They decided very quickly not to point the finger at anybody but themselves and to focus their resources on protecting the customers, not on a counterattack.  They did their usual excellent problem solving in identifying the cause of the problems (e.g., floor mats that were stacked and often the wrong fit for the vehicle that could interfere with the pedal, an accelerator pedal that can stick in high idle or be slow to return under conditions of high heat or humidity, Prius braking software in which ABS kicks in at slow speeds and has a funny pedal feel).  They found the root cause, they found countermeasures that could be implemented broadly and relatively cheaply, and they were extraordinarily efficient about handling the recalls and doing all they could to make customers feel safe (even sending tow trucks to pick up their cars or buying back the cars).

Then they went through the Japanese process of hansei.  Every part of the organization reflected on the root cause of the crisis from the point of view of their department and what they could have done better to prevent the crisis or respond more effectively.  As you would expect they found weaknesses.  They were not fundamental weaknesses in objective quality or in their technology.  They all concluded independently that they were taking too long to respond to customer concerns, especially when the response involved different parts of the organization coordinating and sharing information.  They also were not listening carefully enough to customer concerns.  A sticky pedal in a tiny percent of vehicles that does not effect brake stopping distance may not be a “safety defect” in a technical sense, but under the circumstances it was scary to customers and needed to be taken as seriously as any real safety defect.

The result was Akio Toyoda apologized profusely, admitted to weaknesses that they had uncovered, and went to work overhauling the company to refocus on customer safety.  They needed engineers to get direct data on customer concerns, rather than only statistics from the quality department.  They needed those closest to the gemba, that is, engineers in each region, to have the influence to highlight important problems and get quick action.  They needed to become a global company with more capability and influence distributed in each region with the hub in Japan coordinating and taking on common technologies and processes.  This is all underway and Toyota is becoming stronger by the day.  And it is the Toyota Way culture that allowed them to take this horrific set of circumstances, beginning with the Great Recession, and turn it into an opportunity to further strengthen the culture and come out stronger.

In the meantime the public may view any admission of a problem and any changes Toyota makes as evidence the company has fundamental decay in its engineering, manufacturing, and safety processes because we see the world as black and white.  Either you are an exemplar company and can do no wrong or you are a bad company that deserves scorn.  There is no room for nuance in the gross and superficial generalizations we make as a public about organizations and events, and the media has concluded its readership dislikes shades of gray.  My advice to those serious about lean is to always look below the surface, and look beyond simple categorizations, to understand in all its richness the problem, and that there is always imperfection in our quest for the unachievable dream of excellence.

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