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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: A heroic “line stop” or has Toyota lost its way? Toyota’s unique contribution to management is collaborative problem solving, so Toyota is at its most interesting when it has problems!

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Sunday, January 31, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

There are two extreme ways of reading current Toyota events. From the lean perspective, Toyota is reacting to an exceedingly rare problem by stopping its sales, production and organizing its largest recall ever – regardless of the impact on its cherished quality reputation. Or in reading the press, the story is that the US government has finally forced Toyota to deal with a problem the company has been trying to fudge consistently and the accelerator issue is a red herring to divert attention and blame to a Canadian supplier from the real issue of sudden acceleration that Toyota has been trying to hide. So: is Toyota still acting with Courage, Creativity and Challenge? Or has it become just another greedy mindless corporation putting its short-term interest before the safety of its customers?

Having no concrete way of going to the gemba to see the facts at the source, I’m willing to give Toyota the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps we will find that as in many other such cases – remember NASA’s appalling track record with the O-ring issue leading to the Challenger disaster – some eccentric and plucky Toyota engineers have been complaining all along about sudden acceleration glitches and the company has ignored them and silenced them to maintain its sales schedule – but until something like this surfaces (as it always does when it’s there) – Toyota has earned the credit to be taken more or less at face value.

What fascinates me is that Toyota’s unique contribution to management is its focus on problem solving, both individually and collectively. Rather than apply cookie-cutter solutions managers are familiar with, treating everything like a nail because all you know is a hammer, the specificity of Toyota’s business approach is to explore the issue deeply, to discover the cause-and-effect relationships, and so respond appropriately. Indeed, the Toyota Business Practices are all about problem solving: clarify the problem, grasp the situation & breakdown the problem, set a target, think deeply to the root cause, develop countermeasures, check the results and the process, confirm the countermeasure takes hold and the results remain.

Ironically, it’s precisely when Toyota has a problem (such as the Aisin fire) that the general opinion is that the Toyota model has failed, precisely because Toyota is addressing the problem differently to other corporations.

Having had firsthand experience at trying to apply Toyota’s recommendations in real-life situations, I can say that following this lean approach to problem solving hits two real snags. First, real problems tend to be resilient and people in a hurry to make the problem go away and to move on to “their real job” (late schedule, late project, etc.) Or course, if the problem is not completely solved, it’ll come back to bite us later – but that’s a concern for tomorrow, not today. Today, we need to keep moving! So it’s very hard to keep the teams working at the problem long enough for the situation to be understood from observation and not a priori opinions. It takes both grit and patience.

Second, Toyota’s main contribution is collaborative problem solving: you don’t solve problems for people, you solve problems with them, which means exploring the problem with partners and discovering countermeasure with partners. This assumes they’ll let you. There’s a kind of collaborative problem solving prisoner’s dilemma. If both parties are open and willing to go deep into the problem without blame, the results are spectacular. If neither party is willing to do so, and they both engage in a blame game, everyone loses. But the one party being unilaterally collaborative opens itself to defection from the other party suddenly playing “gotcha!” – in this case, the collaborative one loses big time to the other who uses all the information to slam the fault on their partner.

For instance, the latest accelerator issue is fascinating to watch – the supplier protesting that they simply assembled the design Toyota gave them – so it’s not their fault. The other OEMs are now proposing special “Toyota” rebates to customers who want to switch away from Toyota because they don’t trust Toyota cars anymore, and the press is having a field day with the “giant with clay feet” image, few bothering to clarify that problems such as sudden acceleration reports affect all automakers, not just Toyota.

To answer Tom’s crucial question “what is to be learned from Toyota now” I can only say what I’d like to learn from Toyota: how do you stay a steady course of collaborative problem solving in an environment where partners have no habit, history, incentive of doing so. Within a company experimenting with lean, how to keep problem solving process on track when lean guys are trying their best (and not being very good at it, of course) and every one else slams them for being slow and not finding solutions on the spot (“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” attitude). As John Shook’s Managing To Learn brilliantly demonstrates, how long can you keep one person exploring a problem without them losing their motivation because they simply want to move on.

I’ve recently been discussing with several ex-Toyota managers who have moved to other companies, and I’ve asked them about things that Toyota does really differently from their current companies. Not much, is the common answer – all businesses have to do the same basic jobs – the different is that at Toyota we were ask to pursue issues in much greater detail and go much further in our analyses. The view from inside is that Toyota has a greater capacity to see things through – to conduct the PDCA all the way to its Adjust and Act conclusion.

I’m curious to see how the hansei for the current crisis will be formulated at Toyota. As a long time Toyota observer, I remember other such crises, even if rarely so publicized, such as the ergonomics crisis in NUMMI at the first model change, or the problems with the Georgetown plant in the nineties – and the result of the self-reflections was often unexpected and inspiring. So what I believe I have still to learn from Toyota is how to stick to visualizing problems, deploying immediate countermeasures, seeking root cause and drawing the right management lessons in an environment that expect knee-jerk reactions and then moves on. So far, the recalls can be seen as spectacular immediate countermeasures to protect customers from an unlikely accident cause. I’m curious to see what the root cause analysis will come up with, and what general conclusions Toyota will draw from the current events.

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