17 March 2010

Toyota's Problems

I've been deliberately quiet on the topic of Toyota so far, but I do want to offer a few comments on their recent recalls & troubles.

See, Toyota is the poster child for Lean Six-Sigma, process-centric operations. In fact, before it was called "Lean," it was the Toyota Production System. As I understand it, this approach to manufacturing is designed to prevent the very quality problems we've seen all over the news lately. Clearly, it failed.

Regular readers of this blog know I'm not a big fan of process-centric approaches to work, particularly in non-manufacturing situations. However, I'm not all excited to see Toyota do a public face plant, nor do I see this as proof of some deep-seated flaw in their method. It would be a huge mistake to read recent headlines and conclude that this specific failure means Toyota, Lean or process are universal failures. Yes, it failed. But that doesn't mean it will always fail. There's a big difference between "didn't work" and "can't work," or between "can fail" and "will fail."

So let's not rush to paint this failure as an endemic failure, a fatal flaw in Toyota's overarching philosophy. It would be entirely unjustified to use Toyota's recent problems as an excuse for a wholesale rejection of Toyota's manufacturing approach. Yes, something went wrong. Something big. Something that their method was supposed to prevent. But let's not paint with too broad a brush, shall we?

And I would like to suggest that this perspective on failure applies to just about any approach - Lean, FIST, Faster-Better-Cheaper... when a project or product line produced by the method runs into problems, we should probably avoid the knee-jerk reaction of blaming the method (even if it's the very problem the method is supposed to prevent). My friends from the process world might not agree, but in my experience, most of the time problems like this are caused by the people, not the process. And the solution isn't necessarily to abandon the method or fire the people - maybe what the situation needs is more training, more listening, or something else entirely. One more time: there's a big difference between "can fail" and "will fail."

Bottom line: Toyota's track record is actually pretty good. Their manufacturing approach works well - most of the time. But it's not perfect, and neither are the people involved. And while I'm still not a big advocate of a process-centric worldview, I don't see the current situation as proof that their approach is completely busted.


Waterflake said...


I am writing a paper on Toyota, it's unrelated to the current crisis but it's hard to ignore it...

The reason why the TPS system has failed is not because it is fundamentally flawed but because Toyota didn't stick to it.

One of the underlying mantras of Toyota could be summarized like this:
- never manufacture in a new plant with a new workforce
- never manufacture a new product in a new plant
- never manufacture a new product with a new workforce

Due to their rapid expansion over the past decades they have compromised on this.

I am not a fan of T, I think their cars are pretty boring and as a Project Manager I believe their one size fits all approach is neglecting the element of uniqueness in a project.

Regardless, the slamming the organization has received from the Media is unjustified.

I suppose, as you said they were the poster boys and our current TV and News Culture tends to be one that thrives on Schadenfreude which is what this feels like.

Happy Writing...

Mark said...

I would agree... Toyota seems to have lost part of their own recipe - which incidentally is *not* purely process-centric (the 3 "P"s of Lean are Purpose, Process and People - all with essentially equal weight; Lean is *not* Process, Process, Process).

But don't take my word for it... I am not a student of Toyota per se. I defer to an interview by John Shook of a scholar who actually is an authority on Toyota: http://www.lean.org/shook/2010/03/toyota-troubles-fighting-demons-of.html

Interesting to note that this scholar points to Arrogance (a People issue) and overwhelming Complexity. Sounds like Toyota would have done well to read the Simplicity Cycle... :)

Another key point: "Given its extraordinary abilities to learn, I fully expect Toyota to quickly recover."
Lean (aka TPS, if you wish) is deeply rooted in learning and continuous improvement. Call it PDCA, or perhaps OODA for you military types. This is part of the fundamental culture which is "lean" which has contributed to Toyota's commercial success and will help them come out of this crisis better than they were before.

RhetTbull said...

Toyota's manufacturing processes are not flawed but this post is. You're mixing apples and oranges. The recent problems that Toyota has had nothing to do with quality or process or lean or 6-sigma in the context which you described them. The failures were not failures of manufacturing they were failures of design. The parts that failed were produced within spec, within budget, and within schedule. They were, however, not properly designed (spec'd). Toyota hasn't lost it's way with manufacturing Process but does need to beef up its engineering review - BEFORE the designs go to manufacturing.

Toyota found the design problem and fixed it. While a single accident attributable to design flaw is tragic, the actual scope of the problem is not nearly as bad as the Media is portraying it. The PR problem is terrible, but the engineering problem, not as much. The actual failure rate is very low given the number of affected cars on the road. I drive one of those cars and it doesn't scare me. It's still safer than walking across the parking lot. Of course, I want the affected parts replaced, but in the mean time, the odds are in my favor.

The Dan Ward said...

@Waterflake - good luck with the paper & thanks for the comment! I think you & Mark both hit on something with the comment that Toyota seems to have temporarily drifted away from its own practice.

@Mark - You're right of course that Toyota & Lean isn't purely process centric. That's the part that gets a lot of the press, and that's the part people like to imitate, but clearly their Purpose & People elements are critical (and MUCH harder to imitate - thus they don't get as much attention from the me-too crowd). And I too am confident Toyota is already on a solid path to recovery.

@Rhet - I'm not sure I'd draw such a stark line between design & manufacturing... they're all part of the overall development effort, and as I understand it there's a feedback loop in there somewhere, right? And I must admit I haven't done a lot of research into which part of Toyota is to blame here (design or manufacturing). It's an important question for the company to answer, but from at the same time one of the things I like about what Toyota does is the way it maintains an end-to-end perspective on things.

I agree with all three of you on this point in particular: many in the media (& congress, etc) have rather overstated the situation. The problems Toyota's encountered is neither the death knell for the company nor a sign that they're all jacked up.