Episode #111 brings us some time with Professor Jeffrey Liker from the University of Michigan, the well-known author of many books in the The Toyota Way series. You can see Dr. Liker talk at the upcoming Shingo Prize Conference (hope to see you there!).
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MP3 File (run time 31:50)
Today, we are talking about his TWO upcoming books: The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement: Linking Strategy and Operational Excellence to Achieve Superior Performance and Toyota Under Fire: Lessons for Turning Crisis into Opportunity. The second book was clearly written in response to Toyota’s recent challenges and Dr. Liker has some very strong perspectives to share here in this podcast. What was his take on Toyota’s recalls and quality problems? Why does he think that Toyota was singled out as a “scapegoat” to be “taken down”? Does he think Toyota really will emerge stronger from these challenges?
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Highlights from this podcast:
Jeff Liker talks about how he was really surprised by the reports of quality defects, considering how good the factories were (he saw them first hand) and the quality awards that Toyota was still winning.
Liker says the floor mats problem was caused by owners buying all-weather floor mats and putting them on top of the existing floor mats. Toyota didn’t know their customers here well enough to know people might do that. Is that Toyota’s fault or should they have anticipated that?
On this, Liker said: “Some people stacked two or three or four” mats and different layers. GM recently had recalls for “pedal entrapment” – “it can happen in any car.”
Liker said: “5 million cars were recalled for what was arguably not a defect in the car, but a defect in its use.” Things snowballed and “Toyota got paranoid” and the government was criticized for not being tough enough on Toyota. “The whole environment was set up to find a company to take down, to find a scapegoat and Toyota happened to be that scapegoat.”
Toyota’s response: “We should be designing against that [use of floor mats], whether we think it’s right or not. It’s not our call about how customers use our car.” Response – cut down the pedal, now you can put one all weather mat on top of the regular mat now and be OK.
Toyota asked why this was happening with 5 Whys and the PDCA process and “if you point the finger at someone else, that would be considered bad problem solving.”
Liker says: Toyota didn’t react very quickly because the engineers in Japan didn’t see these problems as defects with the car. Engineers in Japan are pretty isolated from the gemba and they don’t understand how Americans would use the car and how they would react if they had a sticky pedal. “The ultimate root cause was not listening to customers well enough and they took too a long time to investigate and respond.” That was the problem they needed to solve.
The solutions included things like letting Americans make recall decisions, we need to have the data on customer concerns flowing directly to the engineers who make decisions, not to a quality department that was aggregating data. They needed to give more engineering design control in the U.S. (more chief engineers), more responsibility in Ann Arbor for cars that are unique to the American market.
Does Liker think Toyota will come out of this stronger? “Absolutely,” says Liker. Liker makes the case that Toyota didn’t react superficially as other companies might have, stopping work on improvement once the media spotlight was off, rather they looked for real root causes of these situations.
Liker rejects the idea that “there were weaknesses in the Toyota Way philosophy or principles of the Toyota Production System or anything like that.” “What they found was that, in certain parts of the company, particularly in engineering, that were not surfacing and responding to problems as quickly as they should have. One of the reasons for that was that engineering in Japan had been stretched too thin due to the growth of the company, relying on outside engineers or young engineers who didn’t get the depth of training you would have gotten 20 years ago.”
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