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Amidst all of the attention being made to Toyota’s ongoing product recall and sales suspension crisis related to sudden unattended acceleration of certain model vehicles, another interesting question has been posed.  In the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal, reporter Daisuke Wakabayashi penned an article (subscription may be required) noted that lean manufacturing can sometimes backfire.

The premise is that the utilization of common designed parts (i.e. the accelerator assembly) across multiple product models can backfire when major quality control issues arise. Toyota utilized one supplier, CTS Corp., to supply the subject accelerator pedal assemblies.  The argument is that cross-model component sourcing risks are magnified as companies expand globally.  The other premise noted in the article is that growing technological complexity… makes it harder for manufacturers to diagnose problems in the early stages, before the issue becomes more widespread.

My view is to reject this broad argument.

Lean manufacturing methods and common platform designs are a long proven method for insuring cost, as well as quality efficiency.  In fact it was Toyota that led the way in pioneering these efforts.  Common part designs can enhance product quality and cost by allowing product designers to source from approved suppliers with consistent quality and on-time performance capabilities. Lean production methods, when performed correctly, can also spot any quality malfunctions at the source of production, insuring that corrective actions are taken before a build-up of non-conforming parts.

The incident with Toyota, in my view, appears to be more related to a broader feedback loop, one that involves the actual operating use of vehicles and reporting of incidents.  We can all speculate as to when Toyota first became aware of the SUA problem in its vehicles, and what actions were taken to ascertain the scope of such problems.  No doubt, Toyota and certain governmental agencies will be pursuing such investigations.  This has more to do with product management and design than lean manufacturing.

I believe the headline for Toyota is not about the backfire in lean manufacturing, but rather an awareness of both design and supply risk management. This should not be the purview of manufacturing and supply chain, but rather product management and design.

What’s your view?  Do you view this ongoing recall as being exacerbated by lean, or by other shortfalls?

Bob Ferrari

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