What the Toyota Crisis Means for Lean Part 2

March 1, 2011
By Darren Dolcemascolo

In March of 2010, I wrote an article addressing the Toyota Crisis and the Future of Lean Manufacturing. At that time, some critics of Toyota pointed to the Toyota Way or lean manufacturing principles as causes of the problem. In other words, being too lean caused Toyota to somehow create a defective product design or to miss or ignore the problem. In the article, we examined the 14 principles of the Toyota Way to determine if the principles would reasonably be expected to cause such a problem. We concluded that this was not the case at all: the principles of the Toyota Way were in many ways answers to the problem. Failure to follow the principles could cause such a problem or exacerbate it. Following those principles related to long-term thinking/planning and those related to problem solving, we concluded, should help Toyota to emerge from this crisis in as good a position as it was prior to the crisis. I believe those conclusions have been proven to be true.

A year ago, one of the key points that almost everyone (except Toyota) agreed upon was that a problem with the electronic throttle control system caused the acceleration problem. Many believed Toyota was attempting to cover up this problem: Toyota claimed that the issue causing the acceleration problem was related to floor mats. Toyota executives were paraded in front of congress and treated with quite a bit of disrespect; Senator Jay Rockefeller suggested that Toyota should be forced to install brake-override systems in all cars. Last month, however, Toyota was exonerated by the federal government. A NASA study found "no evidence that a malfunction in electronics caused large unintended accelerations." Thus, the acceleration problems were caused by floor mat interference in some cases and operator error (pressing the gas pedal instead of the brake) in other cases. Toyota's claims were proven to be true.

What can we learn from this story? Toyota was initially slow to admit that there was a problem, which does go against their core principles. However, after admitting that there was a problem and addressing the problem rapidly, Toyota once again proved that they are a world-class organization. Their analysis of the problem proved to be correct; all of the critics who concluded that there was a problem with the electronics were wrong; incidentally, those critics would have done well to follow the principles of the Toyota Way. Specifically, when solving problems, one should not jump to conclusions regarding the causes of those problems. The principles of lean and the Toyota Way, when applied correctly, will not cause problems but will help to solve problems and improve products, processes, and businesses over time. Toyota has proven this time and time again.

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