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.