Think and Speak Based on Personally Verified Data

April 19, 2009 - Tags:

David Baxter is a vice president at the Toyota Technical Center. At one point he was responsible for evaluating supplier parts. When Toyota launched a version of the Camry in 1997, they had a wire harness problem. Yazaki Corporation, a parts supplier to Toyota in Japan, supplied the problem wire harness. What happened next is not typical of most companies. Yes, a quality engineer from Yazaki called Toyota to explain what corrective action they were taking. Yes, Yazaki sent an engineer to the Camry plant. But then the president of Yazaki actually went out to the Camry plant in Georgetown personally, to watch how workers assembled the wire harness onto the vehicle.

What would a U.S. executive of a parts supplier do in this circumstance? Well, one data point is a story told by Jim Griffith, also a vice president of the Toyota Technical Center, who took over the parts evaluation function from Baxter. A problem similar to the wire harness problem occurred with a U.S. parts supplier. In this case, the vice president of the business unit that serves Toyota came out to the Toyota Technical Center to discuss what he was doing to solve the problem. He was very reassuring, explaining, “I am deeply sorry about this. Do not worry. This will get my personal attention. We are going to solve this problem. There are no excuses.” When Griffith asked him what the problem was and what his plans were, he responded, “Oh, I do not know yet and I do not get into that kind of detail. But do not worry. We are going to get to the bottom of this and solve the problem. I promise.” Griffith looked exacerbated as he told the story:

And I was supposed to feel better about that? It would be unacceptable in Toyota to come to a meeting like that so poorly prepared. How could he give us his assurance if he did not even go and see for himself what the problem was? … So we asked him to please go back and do this and then return when he truly understood the problem and countermeasure.

Another Baxter story reveals the benefits of taking time and effort to see for yourself. It is about an early assignment to evaluate the capabilities of an outside test lab, let’s call it Detroit Labs, which was highly reputable and had been in business since the early 1900s. Toyota brought in some previously tested struts from Japan and wanted Detroit Labs to test them, using the same test standards used in Japan. As Baxter explained:

I went on visits with my Japanese mentor, who was an exceptional test engineer. We took the struts to Detroit Labs and compared their test results with the known data in Japan. For us the issue was not whether their results came out exactly the same or different, but we wanted to see if they had a good procedure and a good way to do the test. Even when we went to the test company to do this, we were not satisfied looking at pictures and failed parts. We wanted to see the parts under failed tests and to see how the data was being compiled. My mentor would ask most of the technical questions to understand in detail how they had done the testing. What we concluded was they had a very good process and procedure for implementing the tests, but their technical capability did not meet our expectations. They did not use engineering analysis techniques that met Toyota standards. For example, they did a fatigue test and reported the number of cycles and load, but in addition, we were interested in how the load was oriented and we thought they should be controlling the frequency in applying the load (during the durability test) and they did not do that. So we were not pleased with their approach to testing and analysis.

Of course, the Toyota team had further discussion with them and gave them feedback, which is part of genchi genbutsu. Detroit Labs responded by saying Toyota did not tell them to do the test in this way. Part of the Toyota Way evaluation was to determine whether Detroit Labs would take the initiative to test the struts thoroughly on their own, which they hadn’t. Not only that, they had a negative attitude about it. Baxter concluded:

Had we not gone to see the testing ourselves, we would not have been able to confirm that lack of understanding on their part. We would have only seen it in the results and it would have been vague. We were not interested in pass-fail but the process to control the test. The data itself turned out OK—their test of how the part failed confirmed our tests from Japan. Previous tests indicated it would fail. They found out and confirmed what we knew, so got the right answer. At GM (former employer), I would have said, “They got the same answer, so let’s use them.” But they were doing a test to a prescribed procedure rather than doing actual engineering the way Toyota expects. They were doing a task and not thinking deeply. From this experience, I started to understand what a learning company is all about.