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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: Relentless pursuit of perfection means just that – self-critique and facing one’s problems

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: mercredi, février 16, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Toyota has long committed itself to the “relentless pursuit of perfection” by cultivating and sustaining relentless, internally generated improvement and innovation.  The results were legendary: movement from terribly unproductive in the late 1950s to on par by the early 1960s, a productivity leader by the late 1960s and a quality leader too by the early 1970s.  Subsequently, it set an unmatchable pace of introducing affordable, reliable new models, brands like Lexus and Scion, and innovative product technology like the hybrid drive, all the while increasing its organizational scale, scope, and complexity with aggressive efforts to localize its production (and later design) efforts in its major markets.

Despite this commitment too and record of excellence, product problems escaped into the marketplace: sales and service people didn’t install the right parts the right way into cars, mechanical components evidenced unexpected wear and tear, and fuel leaks appeared.  Beyond whatever engineering and manufacturing process fumbles might have occurred, the processes on which Toyota depended to communicate with regulators, legislators, and customers broke down with an impact on public perception far out of proportion to the actual (but very real!) problems.

Somewhere, perfection in design, production, and public relations broke down.

Toyota’s self critique that it grew too fast is valid.

Being able to reliably improve and innovate–to do the new systematically–depends on having broad based, deep rooted skills in:
— designing products and processes so flaws are evident,
–solving problems to the ignorance underlying flaws is quickly and dependably converted into new useful knowledge, and
— sharing new knowledge so it can be incorporated systemically and not just locally at the time and place of its discovery.

Growth is related to stress on the capacity to cultivate and apply these skills.

Through the 1990s, Toyota’s global expansion meant it had to develop more people, more quickly than it had done before.  Its past experience was a plant at a time within the reach of Toyota City and then the more challenging job of a plant at at time overseas.  Bringing more than one on line simultaneously, with the need to develop the attendant supply chain was no small task.  More people had to learn to be great discovers.

This was complicated by the increased complexity of the product–electronics and advance materials were becoming more ‘standard’ in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the supply chain.  The need for discovery skills increased.

Finally, there was the problem of responding to problems that evidenced themselves post sales where reports about problems were more ambiguous than in the controlled environments of design and production and were given, most likely, to sales organizations, only remotely connected to design and production.

In short, Toyota’s self critique is fair and actionable.  It ran into troubles because it couldn’t sustain a level of high speed discovery commensurate with the tasks at hand.

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