It has been fascinating the past two days to follow Toyota's much-publicized cessation of selling and production of half of their product line. As you probably know, the auto maker discovered a problem associated with gas pedal assemblies which ran the risk of an uncontrolled acceleration.
Much of the press is focusing on the damage to both finances and reputation. The models in question represent 54% of Toyota's 2009 sales. Many suspect it will be a major stumbling block to the nascent automotive recovery. Others seem to enjoy watching the now-market leader stumble. Local reports cite anxious car owners calling dealerships in some panic.
All of this is valid. And yet there are other reasons to watch this unfold, not obvious to the press.
As Lean practitioners, we know Toyota systems. What they have done here is a line stop. Line stops are central to quality. To do it well involves four steps:
- Detect the error
- Stop the process
- Correct the immediate problem
- Find root cause and install a countermeasure
Any team moving to excellence must be fluent in the language and practice of a line stop. Thus, I was pleased to hear the discussion in a biweekly production meeting the morning the Toyota news broke. Our production manager simply asked "Did you hear the Toyota news?" Indeed, most had. "What happened?" Immediately the reply "They pulled a line stop."
Interestingly, I personally witnessed a line stop at Toyota a couple years ago at the opposite end of the complexity spectrum for the company. In a totally different setting, I was WIP during a line stop at the Portland Airport security check in 2007. Line stops are one of the best policy examples any company can make.
So, what is Toyota doing? Just what they have always done. They simply do not pass non-conforming product along. The burden is the company's as well, not the workers. No layoffs for staff at the production facilities; instead, the teams are doing maintenance and kaizen activities. It is probably almost impossible for Toyota to do anything else.
Error correction via a line stop. Respect for people.
Behind the scenes, we can be sure intense, round-the-clock effort is happening to fix this problem. How long will it take? I've read expectations of anything from 7-10 days from now. How do you rapidly retrofit hundreds of thousands of cars?
The intelligent company will watch closely and learn much in the next two weeks.