Reflections on the toyota Debacle
A look in the rearview mirror reveals system and process blind spots.
VaRIoUS eXPeRtS IN indus- try and academia have long recognized that Toyota, founded in 1936, is one of the finest manufacturing
companies the world has ever seen.a
Over the past 70-plus years, Toyota
has evolved unique capabilities in
manufacturing, quality control, sup-
ply-chain management, and product
engineering, as well as sales and mar-
keting. It began perfecting its famous
Just-in-Time or “Lean” production sys-
tem in 1948. I am a longtime observer
(and customer) of Toyota, and have re-
cently tried to understand how such a
renowned company could experience
the kinds of quality problems that
generated numerous media headlines
First, to recount some of the facts:
Between 1999 and 2010, at least 2,262
Toyota vehicles sold in the U.S. experi-
enced unintended cases of rapid accel-
eration and are associated with at least
815 accidents and perhaps as many as
102 deaths. The incidents that were not
due to driver error (stepping on the gas
PHO TOGRAPH BY AP PHOTO/NHTSA
a See, for example, J. Womack et al., The Machine
that Changed the World (1990); or J. Liker, The
Toyota Way (2003).
b My first book, The Japanese Automobile Industry (1985), presented a history of how the Just-in-Time system was developed at Toyota. A
later book, Thinking Beyond Lean (1998), examined Toyota’s product development system.
My most recent book, Staying Power (2010),
looks back at Toyota’s manufacturing, product development, and learning capabilities
as well as how it ended up with these quality
problems in 2009–2010.
example of an unsecured driver-side floor mat trapping the accelerator pedal in a 2007
pedal instead of the brake) appear to be
the result of sticky brake pedals (
easily fixed with a metal shim to replace
a plastic component) as well as loose
floor mats that inadvertently held down
the gas pedal.c Another possible cause
is the software that controls the engine
and braking functions, particularly in
c There are numerous reports on the Toyota
problem in the media and information available from Toyota directly. A particularly detailed early document is Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration; www.safetyresearch.
net. Also see “U.S. Safety Agency Reviewing
More Crashes,” The Wall Street Journal, (Feb.
15, 2010); http://online.wsj.com; and “
Toyota’s Sudden Acceleration Blamed for More
Deaths,” Los Angeles Times (Mar. 26, 2010);
vehicles such as the Prius and Lexus
hybrids, which were also involved in
the complaints. Toyota also encountered other quality problems that it
mostly kept out of the headlines—in
particular, dangerous corrosion in the
frames of Tacoma and Tundra pickup
trucks sold in North America between
1995 and 2000, apparently due to improper antirust treatment. Toyota did
not recall these trucks, but silently
bought them back from consumers.d
d Toyota’s buyback program covered Tacoma
pickup trucks made between 1995 and 2000.
See “Toyota Announces Tacoma Buyback
Program for Severe Rust Corrosion,” The Con-sumerist (Apr. 15, 2008); http://consumerist.