Good Things Could Come From The Toyota Recall

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There are 2 recent posts regarding the Toyota recalls that actually paint a positive picture for manufacturing. While this game is still being played - and until we know everything, it's wise not to judge (or report) prematurely - there is one indisputable fact:

toyotabookThis story is resonating because it's Toyota. The golden child of Lean. The cliche of kaizen. The one company that everyone pointed to in the last 20 years whenever the "L" word was used anywhere.

And we all love to see the mighty fall, huh?

But a primary tenet of continuous improvement - whether it be TPS-, Lean- or Deming-induced - is that problems happen and to learn from them. Certainly, Toyota will survive - like Nike did after its own travails in the 90s.

Over at the Harvard Business Review, Stephen Spear has posted "Learning From Toyota's Stumble." This piece presents the standard message we're seeing across the media and blogoshere regarding the recall:

"There are important lessons to be learned from Toyota's stumble: Competitive success is fluid. It depends on continuously discovering better ways to do work. The capabilities to do this are powerful but fragile and need constant reinforcement. Relentless attention to their development can lead to great success; conversely, a loss in attention can have grave consequences."

Certainly, rapid growth across great distances adds complex layers of risk to supply chains. Whether Toyota's predicament is due to that growth or unpredictable supplier failure is irrelevant, because now the cow's out of the barn.

Over at Evolving Excellence, Bill Waddell's take quite effectively - and typically - goes beyond the typical reporting we're seeing. He cuts right to the heart of the issue - this event will (or should) help everyone in manufacturing stop worshiping Toyota as a de facto template, and see Lean for what it really is: a system that offers unique, effective solutions to unique processes when applied effectively to unique companies.

"Excellent manufacturing is a complicated, knotty set of fundamental management and factory economic principles and practices, all rooted in sound engineering and financial logic.  It is not easy to understand, and even more difficult to translate and apply to any particular business becasue it is typically a radical departure from the engineering and financial principles by which the business operated in the past.  Kudos to Toyota for contributing so much to the development of those principles and practices.


"But the 'Toyota Way' is not The Way for the Acme Manufacturing Company in Omaha, Brisbane, Munich, Shanghai or anywhere else. The Way for those companies - every company for that matter - is that company's own way based on the difficult application of the same core engineering and financial principles to their unique business circumstances. Seeking to imitate Toyota simply for the sake of imitating Toyota, and holding Toyota up as the infallible ruler of the manufacturing world from some factory high atop Mount Olympus is folly.


"Toyota - and the notion that there is some unseen, unknowable element to their success that has to be taken on faith simply because that is how Toyota does it - has been the lifeblood for far too many consultants, authors and academics for far too many years. They have plugged 'because that's how Toyota does it' into any holes in their understanding of manufacturing, usually adding to their false expertise by shrouding the whole thing with a lot of Japanese terms. You must know the seven wastes by their Japanese terms, and the 5 S's as well. They cannot explain how those wastes and S's actually translate into bottom line problems, or how the Japanese termed solutions - kanbans and kaizens and kaikaku - are cost effective solutions. They just preach that you must eliminate muda with kaizen because that is the Toyota Way - and look at how good Toyota is doing! And mere knowledge of those terms and a few Toyota techniques makes them the senseis who can do it for you!"

Just as the exposure of Nike's use of labor in Indonesia in the 90's helped start a movement toward better working conditions for labor in low-cost countries, Toyota's current dilemma could similarly influence 3 issues at once:

  1. Help companies see and adopt Lean correctly
  2. Expose and correct consultants and others to do the same
  3. Cause companies to reassess their commitment to rapid growth across extended supply chains

If any of that happens, where's the bad news in that?

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