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Jeff Liker

Jeff Liker: Toyota Recall and the Lean Movement

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Saturday, January 30, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

According to some reports there have been issues of unintended acceleration over a decade and Toyota should have responded much earlier.  According to my Toyota sources they have reports of unintended acceleration all the time and need to focus on systematic causes that they can actually verify and fix.  When customers complain about unintended acceleration the dealers check a code on what they work on (e.g., fixed pedal) and then if there is some pattern (e.g., a larger than expected number) Toyota will investigate. When they investigated earlier incidents they were not finding specific engineering design problems but complex interactions of human error and specific problems with particular systems that had worn or needed repair.  The carpet problem grew more recently as all weather (rubber) carpets became popular as aftermarket items and people do not always fasten them down.  If they are loose they can entrap the peddle in extremely rare circumstances.  The sticky pedal from one of its American suppliers was found quite recently, according to Toyota, and happens with years of wear and exposure to moisture because of a particular material used for one version of the assembly in the spring-back mechanism.  It happens in a very small percentage of cases and they have not found a case where it actually forces the throttle wide open, but rather is sticky, with the braking system still able to stop the car.  The rarity of it makes it hard to find specific incidents from people going to dealers with problems of unintended acceleration.  Could they have detected that earlier?   I personally have no way of knowing.  It does seem that it is only a problem in rare instances and when it occurs the pedal is sticky in springing back, rather than any actual failure of the system.  They are very confident that allegations that the drive by wire system is to blame are blatantly false.  That is a system used throughout the industry and Toyota has so many fail-safe mechanisms built into the electronics that it is virtually impossible they would all fail at the same time.  Failure of any part leads to shutting down the gas, not accelerating the vehicle.

Between the carpet and accelerator Toyota has had to recall about eight million cars, and stop production and sales of models with that particular accelerator assembly from one supplier plant.  The sheer number gives the impression that Toyota’s quality is suffering and there are massive problems throughout the company.  People are questioning whether they have lost their way or have serious weaknesses in engineering and manufacturing systems. There is a logical fallacy called “hasty generalization.”  In this case we see that a pedal was designed between Toyota and one supplier about seven or eight years ago and generalize that to attributes of the global company today.  That would be an improper generalization from the data.

There are many people who I respect that fear this is the result of Toyota growing too fast.  The Toyota Way is a deep management philosophy that takes years to teach. Toyota had this philosophy deeply engrained in Japan through a lifetime of working for the company.  Any expansion globally would mean bringing on outsiders (employees and suppliers) who did not grow up in the culture and teaching them which leads to greater variability. Obviously this could have been avoided by limiting the company to engineering and production in Japan. Toyota has done far more than any other company I personally know of to deeply engrain the philosophy in all employees and suppliers globally over years of training and coaching, but there is always room for improvement.

There is a lot of speculation of what Toyota did and did not do right in the past that allowed these problems to occur and we will probably will never get all the facts in this very specific case of floor mats and sticky gas pedals caused long ago.  I think it is more useful now to focus on what Toyota can learn for the future.  Toyota Business Practices would say:  1) Brutally confront the actual facts of what happened,  2)  find the root cause through five-why questioning going deeper than this particular problem to identify system causes, 3) diligently put in place countermeasures, and 4) monitor the results to continue learning.  That can lead into the engineering process, communications with suppliers and dealers, and public relations.

It would be tragic if organizations that have looked up to Toyota as a model of a lean enterprise suddenly concluded that lean does not work.  I believe the success of Toyota over the last six decades has proved the principles of lean regardless of what happens to Toyota going forward. I would certainly hate to see other companies give up their pursuit of excellence because Toyota was found to be human and less than perfect.

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