Very few events can send an ops professor to a long soul search. A Toyota mega recall is one of them. Marty already posted on a Wall Street Journal article, which discussed the relationship between lean operations and the recall. The New York Times has an excellent article on the issue (“Toyota’s Slow Awakening to a Deadly Problem“).
Lean operations (or lean manufacturing) is a management philosophy that calls for the elimination of wasteful activities and handling of quality issues through continuous improvement by making the people that closer to the line responsible for the process and its improvement. In our core Operations Management course we teach the principles of lean operations and use the Toyota Production System as an example of the implementations of these concepts. With such a colossal event, we must ask ourselves whether the adoption of these principles contributed to these issues or whether these quality issues happed despite the method by disregarding it. We must say that we don’t have yet all the information, but even with this limited information, I like the explanation provided by the NY Times:
Toyota’s handling of the problem is a story of how a long-trusted carmaker lost sight of one of its bedrock principles. In Toyota lore, the ultimate symbol of the company’s attention to detail is the “andon cord,” a rope that workers on the assembly line can pull if something is wrong, immediately shutting down the entire line. The point is to fix a small problem before it becomes a larger one. But in the broadest sense, Toyota itself failed to pull the Andon cord on this issue, and treated a growing safety issue as a minor glitch — a point the company’s executives are now acknowledging in a series of humbling apologies.
I think the problem goes beyond that. The Toyota Production System (and thus Lean operations) calls for the identification of the root cause of the problem. The Andon cord is only the first step in the process that should trigger a chain reaction geared at identifying problems and resolving them when they are still minor. One of the ways to find this root cause is called the “5 whys” – basically asking again and again “why” until one gets to the crux of the matter. It seems that in that the acceleration pedal case Toyota was too quick to try to go back on schedule to the extent that it even sent misleading messages regarding the causes, betraying its customers and its core principles. All of that until someone pulled the cord:
Indeed, Toyota had to be told by regulators to shut down production and suspend sales of the cars and trucks in the latest recall until it had the parts necessary to fix them. It was yet another example of a slow response from a company long known for its meticulous approach to building cars and servicing customers.”
In writing this blog I hope that I pull the collective operations-profession Andon cord. I am not sure we need to change the way we teach lean (or operations), but let’s stop and think what went wrong before we continue and teach the same things and use Toyota as the poster boy for it.
The Wall Street Journal had this very interesting figure on the number of complaints. While we see that the number of complaints concerning other manufacturers is variable but stable, the number of complaints concerning Toyota is exhibiting a steep increase. This figures adds to the explanation provided above that Toyota’s main mistake was disregarding the signals that there is an issue.