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Looks like I hit a nerve with my previous post. For years I've been writing about the good example Toyota set for the design and manufacture of cars. I've been writing about the even better example they are as a model for modern-day management and leadership. At times, it might have appeared I was fawning over them…that I might not see their shortcomings. Perhaps. The one thing I know about Toyota is that they understand that their company is built on human beings…the greatness coming from the everyday ingenuity of people along with the limitations from our mistake-making.

I still choose to interpret both Lahood and Toyoda are sincere.Still, it is easy to interpret arrogance in Toyota's actions regarding unintended acceleration just like it's easy for some to interpret grand-standing from Ray Lahood. I feel no safer after listening to either Secretary Lahood tell us that he will hold Akio Toyoda to his promise to be more diligent regarding safety or to the apologetic TV commercials from Toyota. In making our interpretations we must acknowledge our predispositions just as we acknowledge Toyota's pattern of apologizing and the bluster of American politicians. Considering all of that, I still choose to interpret both Lahood and Toyoda are sincere. It will help us learn from this experience.

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What Is Going on with Toyota

by Hal on February 8, 2010

in lean

Akio Toyoda is on the hot seat. Reportedly, he is a forward-thinking guy who is intent on bringing the legacy of the family to the design of the future of the company. Unfortunately, CEO Toyoda is being tested beyond that of any of his recent predessors. Toyota is in trouble…in the market for cars…in the financial markets…and as as model for managing companies.

Last week I was speaking with Norman Bodek, Godfather of Lean, about Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo for my up-coming book. Norman knew both of them. He was their English-language publisher and he introduced 100s of people to them on his more than 75 study missions to Japan. I had just finished my weekly staff video conference where our consultants lamented that Toyota must have lost their way. I asked Norman what he thought.

Confront this reality: Electronic hardware and software is not bug free.The conventional wisdom about Toyota's quality issues is that they got distracted while pursuing a goal to be the world's largest car company. Norman didn't think they were ever pursuing that as a goal. At one time Toyota's CEO Watanabe predicted that it would happen, but it was never the goal. Yet, we can't ignore their rapid expansion into many new markets across the world. Norman speculated that too many of Toyota's managers of today weren't influenced by Engineer Ohno and Dr. Shingo.

Another contributing factor is the complication in today's vehicles. I read an article in the last week that said there are upwards of 100 computer chips controlling everything from emissions and speed to real-time fuel economy and handsfree cellphone capability. All that hardware requires software. Programmers will tell you that no software is bug free. Ever see the Windows blue screen of death?

One of my good friends wrote a short note to me this morning asking,

"WTF is up with Toyota? How did this happen? I thought they set the standard for quality control?"

Great questions. My answer:

"It's not as bad as Secretary Ray Lahood and the media have made it.
"It's worse than anything that has happened before at Toyota.
"Toyota's solution to the sticking accelerator is elegant.
"It took Toyota way too long to put the pieces together to get there."

It's the same question my colleagues have been asking me. I haven't known how to answer any of them until this morning. Today, something clicked.

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Image representing Yammer as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

I've just arrived at the PMI Global Congress 2009 in Orlando, FL. Tomorrow AM a number of us who are members of the PMI New Media Council will be speaking in a panel on social media and its impacts on the discipline of project management. Among other things, I'll be talking about my company's experience using Yammer. Our experience has been good. More on that later.

It's great seeing a smiling colleague's faceOur company works with architects, engineers and construction firms along with the clients of those firms. We're a small consultancy…just 12 people all working out of their homes in all 4 US continental timezones or at our clients' work sites. We can get isolated from one another. Many of us have become way too self-reliant going so far that some people reinvent materials because it appears easier than collaborating with peers. While we take great measures to make the company's materials widely available using Windows Live Sync, still we weren't collaborating like we wanted to.

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The structure of part of a DNA double helix
Image via Wikipedia

Ifollow numerous blogs, news groups and twitter posts on lean. I've noticed a change in the last few months from talking about lean tools to talking about lean behaviors. It's a refreshing change. Toyota made a shift early this century in the way they spoke about their approach. In essence, they started speaking about the Toyota Way vs. the Toyota Production System. Under the TPS, the two pillars were Just-in-Time production and Jidoka (autonomation). Now they speak about the two pillars of continuous improvement and respect for people. It's a shift from tools to tool users. I don't think that Toyota made a big shift in the way they manage. Rather, they noticed something different about what they do on an everyday basis. It's exactly that noticing that we all should pay attention to for our own operations.

Lean is a mindset. It's not a set of practices. Greg Howell, my colleague and business partner, characterizes lean as a constant focus on learning…learning from everything that happens on an everyday basis. Lean companies are learning faster than their competitors. But what does that mean? How do they do that? Steven Spear, co-author of Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System and author of Chasing the Rabbit, offers an insight on what Toyota and other lean companies are doing.

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ladder lark
Image by Elliot Moore via Flickr

Ihaven't written about construction safety in awhile. I used to write about it every Thursday. I just read an ENR editorial Analyzing Near-Misses Is Key to An Effective Safety Plan. It reminded me of how far we need to go in construction. Our industry kills about 1300 people in the US every year. Thousands of others are seriously injured. Yet, there are far more dangerous industries where people are not getting hurt at anywheres near the construction rates. Alcoa has made amazing strides to create an injuring-free workplace in their smelters. Dupont's chemical operations as dangerous as those processes are don't result in anything near the injuries of construction. These companies and many others across industries all have one thing in common that is fundamentally missing in construction. They systematically learn from each anomaly, variance, problem and near-miss. It's an approach that separates Toyota from all the other auto manufacturers. It's an approach that we can adopt today for safety.

They systematically learn from each anomaly, variance, problem and near-miss.Near-misses happen all the time. I could be working on a ladder and drop a screwdriver. That's a near-miss. No one needs to be under the ladder, they don't even need to be in the work area. That I dropped the screwdriver is unintended and potentially injurious. In the usual situation I might say, "Oops!" getting down off the ladder, retrieving my screwdriver, and going back to work. However, someone could have been injured, or worse. It's exactly this kind of situation that we need to investigate. If we can learn why that incident happened, then we have a chance to prevent it from ever happening again. How do we do that? We call attention to our mistake and get to the root cause.

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