Printing Lean

The 800-pound gorilla

March 15, 2010

For the past several weeks I've been getting bombarded with calls, emails and tweets about the enormous number of vehicles being recalled by Toyota and what it means or says about the Toyota Production System and Lean in general. In one form or another, the question is always the same: "What happened?" My answer: I don't know.

Now, I'm not trying to duck the question and I'm not going to be an apologist for Toyota, but let's not get into hysterics here. Yes, Toyota is facing a massive quality problem that has cost lives. Yes, they are faced with an even more massive public relations nightmare, one that I can only imagine is causing many, many people at Toyota to lose a lot of sleep.

So, I don't know what caused Toyota's recent string of problems but I do know that very few others really know, either. I do know that pundit after pundit, talking head after talking head, and one "expert" after another is claiming that they know the answer(s) and that they've known the answer(s) all along.
Hogwash. If they've known the answers then shame on them for not bringing these critical issues to the forefront immediately and helping to prevent needless suffering.

The truth is that no one really knows what went wrong and, like everyone else, all I can do is theorize and, frankly, only speculate at what I think has happened. I don't want to do that because I don't want to stray from a basic tenet of Lean: Get the facts before making a decision, and I don't have all of the facts. Neither, though, do any of the other experts. All that is happening now in the mainstream media, on blogs and social networks, around coffee and conference tables, and in non-Toyota factories and showrooms is what I've referred to as the great "Toyota Pile-On-a-Thon."

What are the facts? Well, there have been millions of cars affected by the recall. There have been documented cases of crashes, some with fatalities. There are at least two separate and distinct problems, one involving floor mats and the other involving the accelerator pedal mechanism itself. Those are the facts.

Toyota shut down assembly lines. That, too, is a fact.

The manufacturer of the accelerator assembly that is in question also manufactures accelerator assemblies for other automobile manufacturers. We have not heard of any similar problems from these other manufacturers, at least not that I'm aware of. These, too, are facts.

One thing that I can say with certainty is that whatever the outcome is, the root cause is not Lean or the Toyota Production System. I say that because error proofing is an integral component in any Lean enterprise, and errors evidently have occurred. That doesn't mean, though, that a Lean enterprise is perfect. Remember, a Lean enterprise is one that is on a continuous journey of self-improvement. That means a Lean enterprise has not now and never will attain perfection. How do you make an improvement if you're already "perfect"?

I can say without any reservation that I am confident that there is a bevy of people who are working around the clock to identify potential root causes behind these problems, looking to arrive at a consensus on a root cause, identifying countermeasures to eliminate that root cause, and testing these countermeasures to ensure that they are effective. That is what a Lean enterprise does and Toyota Motors is a Lean enterprise despite these recalls and despite what the pundits say about it.

I do wish, though, like many others do, that Toyota had been quicker to respond to these problems when they first began to surface and that they react now in a way that is consistent with the principles that brought them to the top of the automotive industry and, indeed, to the top of the business world in general. These principles, 14 to be precise, are well documented in Jeffrey Liker's book The Toyota Way: Fourteen Management Principles from the World's Greatest Manufacturer (McGraw-Hill, 2003) so I won't go into them here. I highly recommend, though, that you buy the book and read it cover to cover, then go back and read it again, then again if you haven't already done so.

I don't think that it's a stretch to say that Toyota, or perhaps more correctly certain people within Toyota, have strayed from one or more of these guiding principles, and it is only those people who know exactly what they did or did not do. It's not up to me to speculate or point fingers but, instead, to practice what I preach: learn from mistakes.

So, let's all take a step back, let Toyota do what they need to do, and let's all learn from this crisis. Remember, it wasn't Toyota who started the Lean "movement"; it wasn't Toyota who built the pedestal that everyone is now trying to knock them off of. It was us, people outside of Toyota who didn't understand what Toyota did or how they did it. They were just trying to live their reality of building good cars at fair prices. It was others who created the myth of the invulnerable corporation and many of these same people are now claiming to know why the emperor has no clothes.

Let's not do that. Let's take the first step in problem solving and gather all of the facts. Then, and only then, can we decide on what our course of action will be. I know my course of action will be to stay true to Lean; I'm not perfect, I never will be, but I will make every attempt to improve myself in that never ending quest for perfection. I hope that you do the same.
Tom Southworth is a Lean consultant with ConnStep, Connecticut's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). He is a Senior Member of ASQ, an ASQ Certified Manager of Quality & Organizational Excellence, an SME Lean Bronze Certified sensei, and a certified TWI Job Instruction Trainer. He can be reached by email at