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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Quality First, Safety Always

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: vendredi, mars 19, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Would Toyota sacrifice safety for profits? I have no idea how to test such a hypothesis, but I find it highly unlikely. If culture is made visible by behavior, one of the first things that impressed me with Toyota engineers as I observed them working with suppliers, was their unique focus on people before machinery or parts. Certainly, their safety focus was much higher than anything we’d seen before, and they played a strong part in raising safety awareness across the board.

Indeed, one of the first points I personally raise in doing lean with any company is safety and ergonomics. Personal safety of operators is the bedrock of mutual trust between management and employees, and the lean vision on safety has higher expectations by miles than what most companies currently do – and this has nothing to do with slogans and catchphrases, but actual day to day focus on recognizing safety problems and dealing with them.

The last Toyota plant I visited was the Durban operation in South Africa. I toured the plant with its logistics manager, and one of the issues we discussed was his efforts to apply the “separate people from machines” principles in the unloading areas. This key aspect of the Jidoka, one of the pillars of the Toyota Production System, has strong safety implications in terms of creating forklift-free zones for people. When your business is unloading parts from truck or cargoes, this is by no means a small headache, and they showed me many of the smart ides they’d come up with locally to ensure safety in a naturally dangerous environment;

I subsequently discussed the safety topic with a veteran senior manager of that plant and, to him, Toyota’s emphasis on safety was unequivocal  undoubted. In the course of the discussion he highlighted the following points:

1.  Every morning at the management meeting attended by SVP, VP & GM’s the first point on the agenda was, and will be, Safety. Any injuries & near misses have to be reported by the relevant GM. What is revealing about on the emphasis on safety is that each GM was then responsible to Yokoten this in his area of responsibility. This process was checked by the VP’s

2. International incidents were communicated throughout the company (TMC) globally. For instance, an incident occurring in Thailand would be reported in the South African plant management meeting.
3.  Regular safety patrols by GM and VP(on a rotation) basis – this may sound like “motherhood and apple pie” but what is important is that the top mgt took an active interest in the safety of the staff – ALL the time.

4.  The “stop 6” principle was always a key deliverable (Stop the 6 common forms of injury … Pinching, Falling, Contact – heavy object, Contact – chemicals/burns, Contact – vehicle, Electric shock.

5. No one has any idea   It is hard to overstate how much the Japanese go into orbit when there is an injury.

Compared to most industrial companies I know, the emphasis on safety described here is at least one order of magnitude more involved and rigorous than what we usually see. If we assume that such behavior (which I have witnessed in other Toyota plants across the world) is a reflection of a more general safety culture. Anyone who has worked in large industrial environments will know how hard it is to maintain rigorous behavior on tough and demanding topics, so we can safely assume that what we see in the South African plant and others across the globe is the reflection of a strong safety culture.

Would this production safety culture translate to product design? Well, Toyota certainly feels that this is so. As opposed to common practice in engineering, their unique product development process starts with the Chief Engineer pouring through data on problems with the last model and getting a personal gut feel for customers needs and requirements, and safety would definitely fall within this remit. His or her job is then to translate how people use the product into technical challenges and resolve them. I have no reason to believe the safety culture would not lead to a strong emphasis on safe cars, and, by all accounts, Toyotas remain some of the safest cars on the roads in the mass consumer market.).

From my own personal experience of the company, I’m happy to give them a large benefit of the doubt. Sure, they might have been slow to react to the “unintended acceleration” issue but bear in mind that this particular ghost has been haunting the industry forever, and that many experts say that the most common cause of unintended acceleration is the driver hitting the wrong pedal. The most recent case in NY by a woman who ran a Prius into a wall claiming to repeatedly hit the brake showed (on the onboard computer) she repeatedly hit the accelerator and never touched the brake.  Certainly, they might have overdone the lobbying with NHTSA which might have backfired, and I wouldn’t put it past any corporate office – including Toyota’s – to have the bad taste of producing powerpoint slides boasting about saving costs by negotiating for less costly recalls, but although distasteful, such shenanigans have little to bear with real engineering issues.

On the other hand, it is clear that Toyota has a public relations disaster on its hands, and we’re all trying to figure out how such a respected figures as Ed Schein might come to question Toyota’s safety culture in such stark terms. As a sociologist by training, I have tried to apply the cognitive framing tools to look at the hoo-hah differently.

First, what is Toyota actually saying? So far, they have not apologized for safety failures. They consistently claim that their cars are safe and that the floormats, sticky accelerators or braking issues in the Prius will happen in extremely rare and unlikely situations.  Could they possibly be correct?  They also say that they have been slow to find the problem precisely because it’s so hard to replicate. In fact, the number of reported cases remains statistically incredibly small compared to the number of cars on the road, and although Toyota has twice the number of Ford’s reports, for anyone with a quality background, on such small numbers, “twice” doesn’t mean much because we’re in the “noise” zone of the data. Considering all the other problems Toyota is likely to hear about cars worldwide, it would be a typical quality manager reaction to wait for a smoking gun before launching a full blown take-no-prisoners action. When the topic became a public issue with the tragic accident we all heard about (which it turns out was due to the wrong aftermarket carpet that entrapped the pedal) , they probably got to it in earnest. What they have profusely apologized for, and which is a typical Toyota culture trait, is damaging the trust theirs customers have in their cars. This is very specific – owning a Toyota means that you won’t have any headaches with it. So, if you start worrying that your Toyota might not be safe, Toyota has damaged its relationship with you as a customer. And THAT is a BIG DEAL within Toyota’s framework even if Toyota is telling the truth and their is no problem anyone can actually detect.

Secondly, and consistently with a Toyota safety culture, once they’ve pinpointed the actual accelerator pedal problem they 1) stopped the plants (unheard of in automotive) and they recalled ALL the vehicles in the world with the potential problem. Now, that is in fact very responsible and the sign of a strong safety culture, but recalling 4 MILLION vehicles in one shot is certain to be noticed, particularly on a slow news day. In effect, any Toyota driver can now legitimately wonder: if they’ve recalled 4 MILLION, is my own car safe? That might not be very good PR, but it’s pretty typical of a culture where you stop and fix the problem, no matter how large. We’ve seen many factory examples where, having a doubt about how a component has been assembled, Toyota has checked all the cars in the pipeline since the uncertainty started, all the way to the dealers, but no one has ever witnessed this happening on such a grand scale.

At this point, the game changed. The one lesson of the first decade of the XXIst century is that we, the public, have been constantly bamboozled by all our heroes, from president to golf stars. Winner-takes-all media culture puts people on a pedestal, and then tears them to pieces when they’re discovered to have a human weakness. This makes very good entertainment, because now they can crawl in the mud to get back into the public good graces. Sometimes, when you’re a public figure caught with your finger in the cookie jar (or wherever else), it’s a long hard slog. Now, the most admired company, who, in passing has driven two of its major competitors in the protective custody of Uncle Sam out of business, has admitted a weakness by recalling so many of its vehicles: it must be guilty of something.

Once that idea popped out, the bandwagon suddenly accelerated, taking with it the general public as well as some more influential people who should’ve have known better. Sure Toyota HAS problems – what company hasn’t, and its senior management will be the first to acknowledge that. Some have argued it was due to growing faster than they could deeply develop people in the Toyota Way.  But do these growth issue relate to the specific recall drama? A point by point investigation reveals that, well, not really. Toyota may well have been growing too fast, but it’s quite likely that even a half-sized Toyota would still have had the sticky pedal problem, although it might not have become such a global theatre event.

Now that this door has been opened, Toyota will have a hard time closing it, because it’s such a tempting target for tort lawyers. Having said that, after the frenzy of “Toyota is the new evil corporate giant who sells deathtraps for profit” more cool-headed articles are coming up trying to clarify the facts of the situation. But as we all know, visible culture to outside observers is largely about image, and image yields slowly to facts; Toyota execs are right to worry about having damaged customer trust. We know how hard it is to build taking decades, and how quick it is to lose. The odds are that they will have to pay for it in a very literal sense. The news cycle is so quick that most people out there don’t really question Toyota’s reliability or safety, but they have a doubt – if the price is good enough, they’ll still think they’re getting a good deal – so Toyota is likely to have to sacrifice profit not to safety, but to repair customer trust.

Of course, nothing fails like success and irony is the driving force of the universe. The marketing disaster is a direct product of Toyota’s own efforts to portray cars as, well, safe. This is a several ton machine that we drive a 100 miles an hour (think of the kinetic mass involved) in various stages of distraction (cell phone in one ear, coffee cup in the other hand, etc.) – and we expect this to be SAFE? I personally think that it is a great frame and that what just happened to Toyota will reinforce the belief amongst automakers they must engineer and make fool-proof products. Cars will continue to evolve to protect their drivers from themselves (my own Toyota drives me crazy with its ringing tone when I try to drive it without the safety belt on), but when you position yourself as the leader of that movement, you’d better expect to be hit when you’re seen faltering. And the greatest irony is that in this case, the “falter” (the massive recall) is in all likelihood the reflection of the company’s obsession with safety and quality. No one likes a smartass.

For more information, download this article published in The Systems Thinker “Pulling the Andon cord: Toyota responds to challenge and change”.

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