As a Quality Management professional, Toyota was my poster child! I upheld Toyota as my shining example of an organization who “get it”, hence terms like the Toyota Way and the Toyota Production Systems. This philosophy gave birth to a lexicon of additional terms and practices related to Quality Management Systems; LEAN, KANBAN, KAISEN, Just-In-Time, PDCA, etc. and more recently Six Sigma. In 2009-2010, I followed with disbelieve and disappointment the product complaints followed by the recalls that plagued Toyota that resulted in a total of 14 million cars recalled globally by the beginning of 2011. Toyota, my icon for Quality fell and shattered into 14 million pieces!
Well the dust is settling and in early 2011, Toyota announced a goal to reach a sales target of 10 million cars a year by 2015. Can I dust off this icon and put it back in my tool kit? Does Toyota deserve it or was Toyota’s Quality just a myth?
A review of the news reports between November 2009 and February 2011 highlights for me several interesting facts. Working on the premise that the accelerator is indeed faulty, the question is; would a faulty accelerator lead to sudden unintended acceleration resulting in death and injury? To address this question I broke it down into the following elements.
- Would a faulty accelerator pedal result in sudden unintended acceleration?
- Can any sudden unintended acceleration be negated by the vehicle’s braking system?
In simplistic terms, a sticky accelerator pedal would not in itself cause sudden unintended acceleration. It may cause the vehicle to continue to maintain the cruising speed even after the driver has ceased applying pressure on the pedal. A faulty electronic throttle control system coupled to the accelerator pedal function may indeed cause sudden unintended acceleration. A joint investigation by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and NASA found no electronic defects in Toyota vehicles after a 10 month investigation (report released in February 2011). This addresses question 1.
Investigations and studies conducted by credible entities in the US as well as Germany all demonstrated that the braking system can over come the acceleration in all instances. This addresses question 2.
So what of the 58 reported cases investigated by the NHTSA? Of the 58, 18 were dismissed, 39 were found to have no cause and 1 attributed to “pedal entrapment”. According to the news article, one investigator said that most of the cases were the result of “pedal misapplication”. “Pedal misapplication” in other words mean driver error where the driver stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake pedal or both.
The statistics surrounding this issue does not justify the resultant disproportionate response in the number of US law suits, a congressional hearing and the media circus. Car and Driver pointed out in 2010 that the risk of fatality is about 1 in 20,000 recalled Toyotas while the risk of fatality in a car accident is 1 in 8,000 in any car in the US. There were numerous reports of media bias and verifiable fraudulent claims resulting in charges being laid. It is also significant that the majority of cases of sudden unintended acceleration resulting in an accident were in the US. Similar accidents as result of a “stuck pedal” rarely occurred outside of the US. In all instances of unintended acceleration reported in Germany, all drivers successfully slowed their vehicles with their brakes.
From my perspective, perhaps Toyota indeed had a product defect – an accelerator pedal that was prone to sticking. More profoundly, Toyota may have been the victim of; opportunistic ambulance chasers, irresponsible media coverage and a less than impartial US Congress who after all is the majority share-holder of GM. In short, a dearth of personal integrity.
How Toyota dealt with the faulty accelerator pedal provides a clue into the company and its philosophy. Generally, auto manufacturers do not actually manufacture the cars. They design and engineer the car and out source the manufacturing of the various parts. The auto manufacturers assemble the cars. Toyota is no exception. The accelerator pedals are made by CTS Corp, a US company. During the height of the crisis, Toyota worked with CTS to address the problem. Not once did Toyota deflect responsibility to CTS as evident in a public apology by Akio Toyoda, the president of CEO of Toyota where Toyota accepted full responsibility. In contrast, during the 2000 Ford-Firestone recall involving Ford Explorer SUVs and Firestone Widerness tires, each company vociferously blamed each other. Perhaps due to its frenetic pace of growth, Toyota may have lost sight of its product – Quality. It indeed lost sight of one key concept in the Quality Tool Box – Quality by Design. For this Quality professional, the indications however are that its back in focus and its time to dust off my trusty poster!