Eye on Quality

The recent recall by Toyota is apparently causing gloating among some and anxiety among others —there’s back-biting and nail-biting going on.  Though the incidence of failure and fatality are rare, for those experiencing the accelerator malfunction it is significant.

Apart from the priceless human cost, why is it a big deal for Toyota (and seemingly bigger than if it had been any other automobile manufacturer)?    Toyota has been known as the highest quality manufacturer—the gold standard in the auto industry.  Not only had consumers touted Toyota as the best in quality, the competition had sought to measure up to Toyota’s level of quality. 

So what does this quality breach mean?  It means that Toyota will have to do right by its customers by showing that quality includes, care and concern for customers’ well-being.  In a recent New York Times article, James Womack (co-author of The Machine that Changed the World) stated, “When your whole deal was quality, every mistake is a big deal.”

Yes it is a big deal, but quality does not mean that mistakes are never made.  What quality does mean is that you learn from a mistake—never to make it again—and improve using the knowledge gained.   The conduct of business provides opportunities to learn and improve each and every day and a quality organization seizes these opportunities.  If Toyota is indeed all about quality, then they should emerge from this situation just a bit more knowledgeable.  A more knowledgeable Toyota could cause more nail-biting among those now back-biting.

Yes they must learn from the malfunctioning of the accelerator mechanism, improving the design so that it doesn’t happen again.   But more importantly they must see that the bigger more fundamental mistake—the root cause—was not keeping their eye on quality in every facet of their business.  Apparently what they had done was turn the focus of their attention toward costs.  This led them to relax their supplier standards in order to broaden their supplier network in support of a growth objective.  While they may have realized growth, they surely hadn’t made progress!  Sacrificing progress for growth, they are in a less viable position today.

GM and Ford like birds of prey are circling Toyota with the intent of swooping in to bite off a share of its customers.  But are they poised to learn?  Are they about quality?  Are they paying attention enough to learn from the example Toyota has provided or is their attention solely on the prospect of immediate gain?   Are they focused on growth or progress?

3 thoughts on “Eye on Quality

  1. At a component and sub assembly level I have worked for 3 different suppliers to Toyota in the UK, and have spent a lot of time at their main plant in the UK, I also have some extensive knowledge of several GM, Ford and Honda Plants in Europe and have spent time in other European car makers plants Many of these other car company plants to me are just as well run as the Toyota one. I also have had practical experience of several Chinese and Malaysian Car Plants. The Chinese plants lag the furthest behind.

    I respect Toyota particularly for the support they do give to suppliers. They are also very good at identifying correctly and then designing the right cars for the Market Place. They listen carefully to what the market wants and needs. Others fail at this.

    What gives me concern is many commentators and writers are creating a Myth about Toyota, as if it was infallible or unbeatable

    They unduly praise Toyota and heavily criticise other car makers.

    When I listen to my many friends and former work colleagues from Detroit a very different picture of Ford’s GM’s and Chrysler’s problems emerge.

    These big three are actually been killed by totally different set of problems. One of them being pension and particularly employee and retiree health care costs which have exploded in the US in the last 10 years. A massive overhead just for this is placed on each car made which wipes out any efficiency on the production lines. This problem also effects the cost base of many key suppliers.

    (On a separate note I have heard many senior banker’s and economists, plus the President say that behind the scenes this health care cost issue is biggest problem the US faces) and underlines why manufacturing and other jobs are being exported to China and India. The problems is perhaps even bigger than the Global Financial Crisis or Global warming)

    Another big problem is that of restrictive practises and the difficulty of redeploying people from one job to another. People will tell you this is still rife in Detroit.

    Toyota until recently were making very good profits, they are going through a rough patch at the moment. Ford is said to be back in Profit.

    (Just for information in the UK I worked on components for a Toyota accelerator cable assembly)

  2. Well said. We all stumble, the difference is if we are able to catch ourselves and regain our focus on the trail ahead. Sometimes one that goes into a stumble and turns it around comes out with more respect than when they went in to it.

  3. Pingback: Recapturing the Credo « For Progress, Not Growth

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