The Truth About Toyota

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Oh, yeah ... it's all over the news. We love to watch our heroes get torn down, don't we? Whether it's Tiger or Toyota, we can't turn away. Our heads say "calm down," but our curiosity says "click that link." We follow accelerators, brakes, floor mats and - ahem - other indiscretions as though we're somehow above it all.

So, who thinks they're "the world's greatest manufacturer" these days?

So, who thinks they're "the world's greatest manufacturer" these days?

Good thing most of us get to live under the cover of marginal lives, huh?

But the truth is almost always somewhere in the middle. Despite the hoopla around Toyota these days (and little of that is coming by way of the vested interests held by the US Gub'mint in the world's #2 auto maker, don't ya know), I have to wonder who's in a better condition to come out of this smelling like a rose? Toyota? Or Vega-era GM?

Jim Womack of gave a very balanced, accurate assessment of the whole Toyota brouhaha in his Lean newsletter this week:

As I said last month: Toyota will be fine. I believe that around the turn of this century the company made a very human error by deciding it wanted to become the biggest auto maker quickly, a goal of no interest to any customer. Then it worked backward to do what it took to rapidly become the biggest, surpassing the "do not exceed" speed that every organization has on its instrument panel.

By stomping on the gas Toyota briefly lost touch with the core values and rigorous methods that had worked brilliantly for solving customer problems over the preceding 50 years while permitting Toyota to prosper. The result has been some bumps in the road to the future. And there are likely to be further jolts in the near term as every journalist, regulator, legislative committee, and trial lawyer in every country pores over Toyota's product safety performance.

There's not much to be done about that. But what Toyota can and will do is hansei (critical self reflection) and organizational rework to get back to basics and move on. This requires root cause analysis and testing of countermeasures that will seem agonizingly slow to outside observers. But surely we have learned that quick fixes based on incomplete knowledge with no rigorous testing aren't durable. So let's all be patient. (And, let's hope that government regulation becomes a robust, consistent process as well.)

Emotional heijunka is really useful in a crisis. It's amazing how the media oscillate effortlessly between over-the-top-praise and outlandish criticism of companies. Toyota wasn't quite as good as many thought and it isn't nearly as bad as some now believe. But within the Lean Community emotional gyrations of this sort are as distracting as the failure to level demand (that is, to practice heijunka) while managing any process. So let's all calm down and get back to work on our own problems in creating lean enterprises while Toyota deals with its problems.

It's refreshing to hear this perspective now, and we can all revisit this in a year or so to see who was right - and maybe we'll apply the same balance to whatever emotionally charged crisis has our attention then.

But you and I know we won't ...

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