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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: commitment to safety is unwavering, but perfection hits bumps in the road

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Monday, March 15, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Thanks for the question.

With all due respect to Professor Schein, there are other alternative explanations to “abandon safety” or “safety never part of their culture.”  It is entirely possible (more likely) that safety–both workplace and product–remains part of their culture but maintaining perfection hit bumps in the road.


These bumps in the road are:

1: The need to develop an increasing number of great problem solvers at an accelerating rate because of business expansion.
2: The need to develop people’s problems solving skills to greater depth because of increasing product and process complexity.
3: The difficulty of responding to the weak signals of problems occurring after sales, and not in design and production.

First, ‘abandon safety’ is a pretty strong extrapolation from a problem with 17 fatalities (see “Toyota’s are Safe Enough <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/09/toyotas-are-safe-enough/?ref=opinion> ,” by Robert Wright, NYTimes, March 9).

More to the point of the difficulty maintaining perfection, consistent in my experience with Toyota was the ‘relentless pursuit of perfection,’ the cultivated commitment to seeing problems, solving them, and incorporating new discoveries into how work is approached.

That cultivated commitment has depended on developing tremendous acuity in people through a fairly intense mentorship.


1: The ability to sustain that degree of development undoubtedly got strained when Toyota accelerated its growth, needing to develop more people in its own plants and those of its expanding supplier network.

2: Not only were there more people to be developed.  As products and processes grew increasingly complex–dozens of onboard computers, countless lines of code–the degree to which exceptional acuityin seeing problems and alacrity in solving them had to be developed increased exponentially.
3: Learning starts with seeing problems as the indication of where improvement and innovation have to occur.  It is one thing to see problems in design and production.  Those can be weak signals to begin with.  Problems in the use environment?  Even weaker.  Users may not report them right away.  When they do, they have trouble explaining them.  Even then, the problems may have occurred in circumstances hard to replicate accurately enough to generate the failure mode.  Finally, even if the problem is well characterized, it is reported to a dealer, who works for a franchise but not actually for Toyota.

In short:
We’re talking about a very low frequency problem, hard to detect and react to, reaction made all the harder when the skills to forestall and react have to be developed deeper and wider, and the capacity to do so is increasingly stressed.

That, I think, is a far cry from “never caring” or “abandoning” safety.

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