By November 20, 2007 15 Comments Read More →

NUMMI Employee Says Plant Hides Defects

Whistleblower says defects hidden at Toyota-GM Calif. plant

Ironically enough, while on the topic of not counting defects (the TSA), this disturbing story was in the Detroit News today. A 23-year employee, a quality inspector, has filed a lawsuit claiming that the company mistreated her when she reported defects.

“According to legal documents obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, defects that were intentionally passed over included broken seat belts, faulty headlights, inadequate braking, mirrors falling off, engine oil leaks and steering wheel alignment problems — all in an effort to decrease the number of defects. It is not clear whether any defects resulted in accidents.

When Cameron, a trained expert at spotting defects, complained, her bosses struck back, demoting her twice, accusing her of being crazy and violent, forcing her to submit to mental fitness tests, according to the documents. “

I certainly hope none of that is true. As the article points out, that isn’t supposed to be Toyota behavior. It doesn’t illustrate the ideals of quality and teamwork, nor does it seem to represent empowered employees who are able to stop the line.

I don’t know what is going on inside NUMMI, by any stretch. My earlier posts about a plant tour I was on two years ago sometimes bring random and angry comments from people claiming to be NUMMI employees. The quality reputation of NUMMI is good, as judged by outsiders, not just from internal quality reports. Is the story overblown here or is NUMMI “the best of a bad bunch,” where things like this are just commonplace for the industry? I certainly have my own first hand experience at an auto parts plant where top managers bent the rules on quality to keep the line running, although I never heard of falsification of quality records.

Is Toyota perfect? No, they are a company full of people, and we are fallible, we make mistakes. That’s not an excuse for any of the alleged behavior, if it is true. If stories like this are true, that’s bad, for the people involved, and for anyone trying to use Toyota as an inspiration for trying to do things differently, in terms of quality and employee relations. Are people at Toyota capable of those things? Probably. Is it widespread throughout the company? I hope not. Does stuff like that happen at “mass production” companies? I’m certain of it. But we hold Toyota to a higher standard — they have asked to be, right?

While NUMMI is “jointly managed” by GM and Toyota, I consider it a Toyota plant under the Toyota Production System. It’s jointly owned, but the burden needs to be on Toyota, I’d say.

It will be interesting to see how this case plays out. Here are more stories via Google News. Here is a post at TheTruthAboutCars.com that includes an alleged detail

Cameron began retaining her original pencil written reports (to document the changes) and turning-in photocopies

The blog has reader comments, including this story (from another auto factory) about fudging the quality numbers.

The SF Gate has a story on this, as wel


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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an eBook titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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15 Comments on "NUMMI Employee Says Plant Hides Defects"

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  1. Bob Graban says:

    To loosely quote Bob Lutz (of GM), the myth of Toyota quality is going to live on until every Toyota owner gets a bad one – and Toyota is working real hard at it.

  2. Neutron Jerk says:

    Is GM really so arrogant that Lutz would gloat about Toyota’s quality problems? Damn. He better keep his focus on improving GM’s sorry reputation. I guess he can tell Toyota first hand that a bad reputation takes many years to overcome. Lutz was also saying that GM’s reputation (via good products like the new Malibu) won’t be fixed “in this generation.” The Toyota people are always telling you how bad they are and how they need to improve, I guess GM wants to hop on that bandwagon of telling us how bad Toyota is too?

  3. Bob Graban says:

    The Lutz comment was made in a meeting of all the engineers working on the Volt / eFlex. In fact he compared it to Sputnik 50 years ago – for those of you not familiar, the U.S.S.R. was badly beating the U.S. to space to the point where our allies in the Cold War were beginning to think they were backing the wrong side and should go with the sure winner.

    Then Kennedy set the goal in the early 1960’s (with no option to fail) to put a man on the moon and return him safely before the end of the decade. It took a lot of leadership, money and hard engineering work. Even with today’s technology, no nation is willing to try it again because it’s too hard and too expensive.

    But like the moon shot, with no option to fail, Lutz and GM are being very public – the Volt will be out by the end of 2010, have 40 miles electric range before the gas engine ever starts, and at a low price (a nice round number, but I don’t know that it’s been made public yet).

    It’s just like the cigar-chomping ex-Marine aviator Lutz to tell it like it is – if the truth hurts Toyota’s feelings, too bad.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Overall, the story is hard to believe. Despite media reports, it is extremely rare that things are even that bad at the big 3. One individual? Sure. A whole systematic failure? I doubt it.

  5. Neutron Jerk says:

    Bob, I hear you that plenty of good things are happening at GM. From the outside, you guys seem to be in much better shape than Ford or Chrysler, in terms of product design and excitement. Reputation hasn’t yet caught up though.

    But, my point is that Lutz and the GM folks should focus on their own house instead of spending time gloating over the failures of others. Is Lutz German? I guess he’s familiar with Schadenfreude then.

    On a seprate note, I wonder how many people in the “anti-Lean” community (is there a blog for that?) will gloat and say “see, Toyota isn’t perfect, let’s keep doing things our old ways”?

  6. Anonymous says:

    I also find it hard to believe that Toyota would allow such systemic dysfunction in a plant.

    One way that could happen would be for top Toyota management to be very disconnected from what’s happening at NUMMI. That seems unlikely.

    Second way would be that managers are under intense “get us results at all costs” pressure to the point that they would pressure people to fudge numbers and defect data, not worrying about the long term quality or warranty impact. Also seems unlikely for Toyota.

    Disgruntled employee with an axe to grind and a media looking to dump all over the leader? That seems more likely.

  7. David Meier says:

    Mark,
    I don’t know much about NUMMI, but I am going to say this- The lady might be a disgruntled employee, someone in the union who is trying to raise anti-Toyota views, or any variety of things, and I am not sure how much Toyota is managing NUMMI. I know in other US plants the number of Japanese managers is low and the management is left up to US managers. What I can say about that is that often the US managers are not deeply rooted in TPS and perhaps they make poor decisions. I certainly saw that at Georgetown from time to time. (I never saw or heard of anyone passing crucial defects though). Also at the line level some employees did not understand the principle of surfacing and celebrating problems (especially is they caused them) and as such may have taken liberties and tried to hide issues.

    And I did see questionable work by people who thought they were doing the right thing (making cosmetic repairs that were questionable in my opinion).

    One last thing- there is a HUGE difference between the questionability of a paint defect (cosmetic) and a brake system problem. I saw and had hundreds of disputes about cosmetic issues (because cosmetics are debatable) but NEVER saw a dispute regarding safety, or fit, or something like a rattle or leaky engine.

    I do know that I encountered some people (and this lady might be one) in quality who were not able to distinguish the difference between perfection and acceptable in terms of quality. They tended to exaggerate as well.

    Just my 4 cents worth. I follow Toyota rules- go and see for yourself before making any conclusions!

    David Meier

  8. Anonymous says:

    Maybe Toyota is learning more from GM than vice versa??

  9. Anonymous says:

    I tend to agree with David. With Toyota’s quality situation, its hard to imagine someone intentionaly covering up quality defects. Mirrors falling off?…come on that’s kind of silly.

    The article didn’t mention which vehicles were involved. I wonder if GM has lower quality standards for the Vibe? I could believe GM would take the kinds of actions described in order to make their numbers. Toyota?…no so much.

  10. Mark Graban says:

    Interesting comments, thanks everyone for chiming in, including my dad (Bob) who chimes in from time to time. It will be interesting to see how this plays out:

    a) is this an exaggerated story that won’t hold to be true?

    b) is it dead on but a locally isolated incident (bad management on NUMMI’s part)

    or

    c) the sign of a wide spread growing pain of Toyota.

    We will stay tuned. I talked to Norm Bodek earlier and he emphasized that people aren’t perfect (including Toyota) and that we can hope people don’t use this “see Toyota isn’t perfect” as an excuse to not try to implement Lean thinking, including the respect for people pillar.

  11. Londo says:

    With respect to the uncited, loose quote of the original poster, the comment of bob klutz should inspire Toyota to further diligence.

    Here is the experience of my ownership of a 2002 Toyota Camry XLE V-6. With 91,000 miles, I have replaced the battery twice and performed all factory recommended maintenance without any other noticable defects.

    Until klutz improves his product to a level such that a consumer’s confidence is greater than that of Toyota’s he should either quit and remove the waste that he costs the company or do something about it.

  12. Anonymous says:

    nanapat:: In May 2007 I had the misfortune to buy a 2007 Toyota Corolla & have had nothing but problem’s with it. Safety issues big time & mechanical issues & as one Toyota mechanic said hmmm “it’s a design flaw lady nothing you can do about it”. Guess what factory this Corolla came from ? yup NUMMI.. complaint’s to Toyota USA go by the wayside as a matter of fact one Toyota USA rep responded to my BBB claim “case closed as far as Toyota is concerned car is as built”..

  13. Ralf Lippold says:

    As I have no deep insight in the US automotive market and the obvious rivalery between the BIG 3 and Toyota I would argue that it is always possible to do bad publicity (as it seemed to be happened by one single person, we all don’t know what are the real reasons behind it).

    Even though I haven’t been in a Toyota plant to present I doubt that errors will be hidden in order to stay “sober” (that’s definitely not Toyota’s culture and the customer will give the final feedback on quality. J.D. Power reports tell different and from my own experience driving US manufactured cars during holidays in the US and Canada I can state that the quality was not what I would expect from a middle class car).

    Of course where people work there can happen errors and defects and in companies with non-lean culture there is often the need to meet the numbers and this can lead to “oversee” defects as there is always a down process where it can be found (so one thinks;-(().

    So I wouldn’t give too much on the story about the purposely hidden defects at NUMMI. If there is the slightest hint that this has happened amongst the workforce this would lead to TPS like countermeasures and improvement efforts right away.

    Best regards

    Ralf

  14. nanapat says:

    story about NUMMI must be true. In 5/2007 I bought a 2007 Toyota Corolla which according to the window sticker came out of the NUMMI plant. I have filed many complaint’s on the safety problems with this car and letter’s to Toyota USA are unresponsive..

  15. Anonymous says:

    The woman is back to work at NUMMI. Link

    She’s back in a parts kitting job now.

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