It seems to be a natural instinct to immediately question the Toyota Production system as soon as the words “toyota” and “recall” appear in the headlines. But as LMJ editorial Board Member and respected TPS related author Jeffrey K Liker explains, slowing down the aggressive thought process will often result in a more logical explanation.

It seems whenever something bad happens to Toyota there are Questions about the robustness of the Toyota Production System. One of these bad things is a major recall. Why is Toyota recalling millions of vehicles? Is the cause rampant bad quality that somehow slipped through the cracks of the vaunted TPS? And if Toyota has worked so hard to tighten up quality factories why are recalls still slipping through?

Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, simplifies the brain into a fast processor that rapidly draws conclusions and a slow part that processes data and more carefully draws inferences. The fast part is usually dominant. One of the benefits of a systematic problem-solving process based on asking “why” five times, is that it slows us down.

Let’s consider the following:
A. Observation: Toyota has issued yet another major recall of a lot of vehicles.
B. The assumed problem: Rampant quality problems are leading to safety issues for customers.
C. The assumed root cause: Something is wrong with the Toyota Production System.

In reality, if we practice a little slow thinking, it would quickly cause us to question B and C. Why? Consider the two recalls that originally made up the crisis leading to Akio Toyoda testifying before the US congress in 2009.

1. Floor mats entrapped accelerator — The original case that got publicity was the Saylor family’s horrific accident and deaths and the root cause was the wrong oversized all-weather rubber mat installed by a dealer that entrapped the floor pedal. After that, no accidents (as far as we know) were associated with floor mat entrapment. In the U.S.,
rubber mats are popular and could entrap the pedal if not clipped down and if stacked on top of the carpet mats installed in the factory. Toyota defect? Debatable. Related to anything in a factory following TPS? No.

2. Sticky pedals that can slow or stop deceleration — In about 15 of more than 2,000,000 vehicles this happened. The root cause was two plastic parts sticking together only under extreme moisture or extremely hot conditions. No serious accidents were known. Toyota defect? It was a supplied part, but Toyota is still responsible. Related to anything in a factory following TPS? No.

Jeffrey Liker says that when casting doubt on the Toyota Production System, one of the benefits of a systematic problem-solving process based on asking “why” five times, is that it slows us down.

After the congressional hearings, Toyota made many changes including appointing an American Chief Quality Officer with a great deal of power to influence recall decision. Toyota policy shifted from investigate the cause first, then recall to recall first then investigate the cause, and predictably the number of recalls accelerated dramatically.

For example, if you go to the NHTSA website and search for “monthly defect investigation reports” you can pick a month and look at all the vehicles suspected of having safety  defects that are under investigation, including some several years old and not closed out. There are plenty each month and almost none are Toyota vehicles. Toyota voluntarily recalls anything where there are customer complaints that may theoretically lead to a safety issue before waiting for the NHTSA investigation.

On September 27, 2013 we learned Toyota recalled over 600,000 Sienna minivans for model years 2004, 2005 and 2007 through 2009. We learn a shift lever could break in these older vehicles. It seems unlikely this was a factory problem unless someone or some machine created defects for some years and somehow took a break from that mistake in 2006. More likely this was an engineering issue not anticipating the impact of wear on certain parts, and could have been a supplier design decision, probably made sometime around 2002. Is this an indication that TPS is not working lately? Absolutely not.

My position has been that one problem that leads to a defect in one vehicle is no different then that same one problem that leads to theoretically possible defects in millions of  vehicles, and thus a recall. It is still one problem. Therefore, number of vehicles recalled is dramatic, and undoubtedly something for any automaker to take seriously, but not a good indicator of the number of quality problems. A little slow thinking can go a long way.