Podcast #111, Jeffrey Liker on Toyota’s Challenges and His New Books


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!).

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?

To point others to this episode, use the simple URL:  www.leanblog.org/111.

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.”

For earlier episodes, visit the  main Podcast page, which includes information on how to subscribe via RSS or via Apple Podcasts.

If you have feedback on the podcast, or any questions for me or my guests, you can email me at leanpodcast@gmail.com or you can call and leave a voicemail by calling the “Lean Line” at (817) 993-0630 or contact me via Skype id “mgraban”. Please give your location and your first name. Any comments (email or voicemail) might be used in follow ups to the podcast.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Thanks Mark for bringing this up for discussion. From a very recent blog – when talking about the recent announcement that kept Toyota #1 in global sales – I mentioned: “… there is where I personally believe the Lean SYSTEM shows its power. It is exactly when it allows a company to stay on the top even when mistakes are made.” http://elseinc.com/elseincblog/

    Do I also believe that Toyota came out of that mess stronger? Absolutely I do. Seeing their plants everybody would realize that it is not about a “perfect” 5S system or a great TPM or a spotless JIT; it is all about a second to none LEAN SYSTEM that, although not perfect, it is continuously pushing the limits.

    Just think about their reaction to what Jeff Liker mentioned being a “defect in its use”. There was not a blink of throwing that on customers’ shoulders although, God knows how we can predict all the “creative” ways we, as customers, find in using products for what they were not intended to be used or in ways that the designers had never thought of… That didn’t matter to Toyota as they didn’t use it to defend what happened. They will keep trying to foresee every single flow in order to avoid any possible problem. That mindset is very hard to match, no matter what.

  2. […] Jeffrey Liker on Toyota’s Challenges and His New Books by Mark Graban – “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… ‘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.” […]

  3. Great case study illustrating the importance of viewing things from a customers perspective. We keep coming back to the customer, talk to the customer, ask the customer, understand the customer, share the customer experience etc. Its at the core of effective management irrespective of whatever label we apply.

    Many people make the mistake of assuming that since they don’t have daily contact with the end user then they don’t have customers. This is not correct, there are internal customers as well as external customers. Everyone is a part of a chain of interdependent customers. Everything we do impacts upon someone, someplace and the person impacted upon is in reality one of our customers, no matter how deep you are hidden in the bowels of an organisation.

  4. Thanks for posting this Mark . I found it timely (just in time?) to share with people who have asked me about Toyota’s accelerator problem and it’s great to have it as follow-up to the Feb 8 announcement from U.S. Transportation (including study by NASA engineers) that found the problem was not electronic. Wish someone from the news media would talk to Dr. Liker about the issue . I guess when you focus on the process and problem-solving it doesn’t sell newspapers, but finger-point does . As the Eagles sang, “give us dirty laundry” . Mike


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