For years, Toyota was the model of production efficiency, its lean manufacturing processes copied by companies around the world to make great products at low cost.
Now, millions of Toyotas are being recalled with accelerator or brake problems. What happened? From all that Barrett Thomas has seen, he doesn't think the company's vaunted manufacturing process is at fault.
"From what I've read, the problem seems to be a design flaw, not a mistake in the manufacturing," said Thomas, associate professor of management sciences in the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business. As an expert in manufacturing processes, he's studied Toyota's principles of lean manufacturing and continuous quality improvement for years.
That improvement plan was pioneered by Toyota in the 1950s and focuses on each step of the manufacturing process, no matter how small, and empowers every person in the plant – from manager down to assembler – to stop the line and fix whatever problems they might find. But Thomas said it's not likely the Camry's accelerator problems or Prius' brake issues could have been seen on the assembly line.
"A problem like this needs to be caught in the testing phase," he said. "It's not going to be seen during manufacturing."
Like other analysts, Thomas suspects the design flaw was the result of the company growing too big, too quickly in its quest to become the largest car company in the world. He said the company's replacing its CEO in the last year is one sign that even Toyota officials realized something was amiss.
"One of the assets that sustained the company for so long was a disciplined commitment to continuous improvement and high quality, but as you grow and bring in more people, it takes awhile for the new employees to reach that same level of commitment," he said. "Too much growth too fast also spreads out mentorship, so there's fewer leaders to pass along their commitment to continuous improvement to the new workers."
Thomas said that in the short-term, Toyota needs to focus on fixing the problems associated with the recalls. In the long-term, however, the company needs to review every step of the design process to find where the problems happened, and revamp it immediately. Given Toyota's historic commitment to process, he expects they're doing that already.
"If they follow their own lessons, they're using this as a learning process and are fixing it," he said. "Toyota is still capable of making good vehicles. They can use their current problems to improve the design process and, hopefully, avoid these issues in the future. That being said, they definitely need to find a way to rebuild consumer confidence, and that will take some time."