Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Biggest, Most Public Line Stop Ever

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. 


Chet Frame said...

Good post, Joe. As always factual, straight forward, Lean.

Thank you.

Unknown said...

The line stop was the right thing to do. No one ever stopped the Pinto production line, or the Explorer, or the Fiero. They just keep building. It allows you to focus on the problem with all your energy because it's not going into building cars. They didn't handled the PR side of that well, and the line stop instead made it sound even worse.

I have been resisting writing about the Toyota case because so little is actually know about the defect itself, and cause and effect isn't clear. But I have been getting enough questions about it. I don't think this changes anything about Toyota's success. They still have dramatically fewer recalls than others. And of course no one that knows lean would say they were anything close to perfect.

I did write up some of my thoughts and lessons in observing the story on my blog here:

Jamie Flinchbaugh

George said...

Excellent post. It takes incredible discipline to stop the line specially in a world driven by profits. Toyota stood true to their values and culture and they will come out stronger and better because of this.

Raphael said...

Good example of the Toyota Way!