How do you solve a problem like Toyota?

Modern media and the blogosphere love a “story” (as we call them) like the Toyota saga. It gives everybody a chance to offer an opinion, whether or not they have any of the facts at their disposal.

This recent piece in the New York Times, by the auto industry blogger Matthew DeBord, argues that the famed Toyota Production System sowed the seeds of its own destruction -

“For such an intense system to function properly,” DeBord wrote, ”employees have to blindly adhere to it; overconfidence is the natural outcome of this arrangement. Yes, any worker is empowered to stop the assembly line because he spots a flaw. But if a flaw does get through, the company as a whole is loath to admit that the system broke down.”

I don’t think this is quite fair. The TPS is good. But it has struggled under the pressure of the amazing expansion the company has undergone in the past ten years. Senior managers may have been arrogant, or perhaps just not brave enough to admit how standards were slipping. But I expect that, down on the production line, Toyota employees could see exactly what was going on. That is the Toyota way.

I have written a column today on how great companies fall. Ironically – serves me right – a foul-up in production led to an idiot mistake in the print edition (which you will now not find in the corrected on-line version!) To err is human. That is why you need systems – like the TPS – to spot mistakes and act on them.

About the authors

Stefan Stern writes a column on Tuesdays on management. He is winner of the 2010 Towers Watson award for excellence in HR journalism, and has previously won awards from the Work Foundation and the Management Consultancies Association.

Ravi Mattu is the editor of Business Life, the FT's management features section, and a former editor of the Mastering Management series. He joined the FT in 2000 from Prospect magazine

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