Is Lean Manufacturing to Blame for Toyota’s Woes?

Toyota's Faulty Floor Mat Retention System

By Lloyd Graff

Toyota, the icon of lean manufacturing, now has a big fat problem that could devalue the brands which vaulted it to the top selling car company in the world.

The sticky gas pedal that has prompted the recall of Toyotas and Lexus going back to 2005 has been traced back to a bad design in a component made by CTS, an Indiana auto parts supplier. Because Toyota was so committed to lean manufacturing, which translated into common components across platforms and models, the company has to callback the RAV4 SUV, Avalon, Corolla, the top of the line Lexus and the ubiquitous Camry.

Besides being a tort lawyer’s buffet, this debacle besmirches the reputation of Toyota, because the problem must have been recognized in the field years ago, yet was never fully acknowledged until now by the corporation.

This is a tremendous opportunity for Ford, GM and Honda to attack Toyota. Toyota is suffering because of the dark side of lean manufacturing which corrupted virtually every one of its major models from the last five years. Toyota’s reputation will also take a blow just for the fact that it refused to come clean about the problem for years in a marketplace that increasingly demands transparency.

Question: Do you think Toyota’s commitment to lean manufacturing was a significant contributor to its current crisis?

Imagine, this goof is from a company that can develop a thought-controlled wheelchair.

Toyota’s Thought-controlled Wheelchair

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17 thoughts on “Is Lean Manufacturing to Blame for Toyota’s Woes?

  1. AvatarDon Schreiner

    I run a small automation company and it is very easy to take things for granted when you feel that you can do any thing. The first thing that is important is to not forget how we got to where we are at. Management needs to be sure that every option is properly developed and tested especially on things that have small changes.

  2. AvatarAllan Thom

    I agree completely with the article and have noticed the decline in the quality of Toyota vehicles built over the past 7 years. However, the image you show is of the floor mat retention device, not the faulty accelerator pedal – is this component faulty as well?

  3. Avatarsnooty responder

    Seems like a bit of a leap. If GE has a quality problem do we then blame Six Sigma on it? Lloyd, this is about the 3rd article in 2 years where you question Lean. Did something happen in your childhood that made waste (Muda) something to desire? Without knowing anything about Toyota & the suppliers design verification process, the root cause and subsequent fault tree, and other details it’s not possible to know where the problem lies. But like the rest of the media I’m glad you threw out the subtle hint that Lean was probably at the core of this. Nothing sells better than pointing at the best in class & clapping for a failure. Bravo.

  4. AvatarJim C.

    I bought a certified 2000 Celica GTS a few years ago. My first (and last), but my family’s 5th. So you’d think they would want to do right by me for the prospect of return sales. Apparently not! The car suffered from a host of major problems including an issue with the accelerator, which the local dealerships tried to pan off as a shifting floormat. (They didn’t offer any solution, and it WASN’T the floormat.) The selling dealership washed their hands of the problem and the car was so screwed up, the other local dealerships refused to honor the warranty. They wouldn’t write up the service reports either. That made it impossible for me to file a lemon law suit. I never found an attorney that wanted to get involved. After two years of writing, phoning, and screaming at Toyota USA, and Toyota Japan, and getting nothing in return, I sold the car for a $16K loss. Most of the 30,000 miles I put on it were going to and from dealerships trying to get repairs. I figure with gas, insurance and all the money I put in it, I paid over $4 per mile for that car.

    I concluded from my experience and communications with Toyota, that they consider their product superior to everything else on the market. And they think themselves infallible. So when the DO make a mistake, they refuse to owe up to it.

    They may get great reviews in Consumer Reports, but their cars have suffered from lots of problems over the years. Sludge in the engines. Burning door locks. Corroding frames. And now accelerator problems. Maybe they were tripped up by a US supplier, but they have to take responsibility for the parts they install in their cars. I don’t want to see drivers hurt Toyotas, but I have to admit, I’m enjoying seeing Toyota Corporation squirm and lose sales.

  5. AvatarHAL STACEY


  6. LloydLloyd

    This is to Snooty. You are right that I am a Nonbeliever in the Lean religion which has swept the manufacturing world like So You Think You Can Dance. Certainly lean has merit in taking out waste and redundancy but there is a place for redundancy in the real world of error and miscalculation. The bullwhip effect which we alluded to last week is the flip side of shrunken inventories.
    I have long felt that lean was somewhat artificial because it was an accounting device for big firms to foist inventory on smaller suppliers while they pretended not to pay for it. I would argue that they did pay indirectly because the smaller firm had to figure their inventory cost into their overhead.
    I plan to do a column in TMW magazine soon and would love further input.

  7. Noah GraffNoah Graff Post author

    Here’s my argument for Lean. In theory the quality control should be the easiest when the company uses only one type part for all their cars. If they had different designs for all the cars, it would be more difficult to keep track of all of them. Sure your bets are hedged by having the cars be different designs, but think what a pain it would be if the door had problems on one car and the windows on another and the breaks on another. If all the cars were pretty similar they could easily monitor what was going on. Less moving parts in the operation less different things that can go wrong.

    If everything was being done correctly, having the product streamlined should have prevented the problem from happening in the first place. Complicating things is usually not a great thing to do.

  8. AvatarMichael Rosenboom

    Lean is a good idea but this type of problem is inherent in the concept of less, good enough, minimal efforts, one-size-fits-all etc. I think Lean can be taken too far and there really needs to be some safeguards when products are designed in “Lean” organizations.

  9. AvatarDavid Davis

    Are you honestly asking if lean manufacturing is the cause of Toyota’s recall problems when you stated in the article
    that the cause for the recall was poor engineering?

    That is about the same as the big 3 auto workers with little or no skills and large paychecks blaming their non-profitability on fat cat ceo’s for taking too large a salary.

    Crisp and clear analytical thinking going on everywhere these days…….

  10. AvatarArchibald, John

    Is the specific problem and solution known yet? I heard something about “friction” being the culprit on the TV the other night.

    I’d really like to know the details of why the thing sticks. I have a sneaking suspicion that it is the infamous “Sticking Bureau Drawer” problem yet again raising its ugly head.

    Please let me know if you find out definitively what the problem was.

  11. AvatarRaymond T. Frattone

    If Toyota designed the mechanism and CTS made it to specifications, Toyota is at fault, lean or not.
    If Toyota designed the mechanism and the supplier failed to produce it to specifications, Toyota is at fault, lean or not.
    If Toyota purchased the mechanism design from CTS, and accepted it, Toyota is at fault, lean or not.
    For these reasons, I believe being lean is a non issue in this case.

  12. Noah GraffNoah Graff Post author

    In the end doesn’t it all come down to, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” 🙂 It’s not Lean’s fault that Toyota royally screwed up. It’s Toyota’s.

    BUT: Perhaps Lean can get a finger pointed to it, if Toyota was trying to be too lean on its quality control staff. Perhaps they needed more people being vigilant on the situation. Maybe its the people that caused the problem, not the process.

  13. LloydLloyd

    The lean issue in this instance is the quest for efficiency by Toyota to use the same accelerator over many platforms, Had they not had so much uniformity of components they would not have a huge 4.2 million car recall.

  14. AvatarBrian "Snooty" Hoff

    Something tells me that when Lloyd says “Lean” it’s a different enitity than that which so many of us strive for each day. People playing accounting tricks is not lean. Lean is not a lack of redundancy, it actually calls for some “planned” redundancy to absorb quality issues & market variations. Lean is not about “good enough” for it requires continuous improvement. If Lean is practiced by hacks that think they can shortcut the principles then they will never get the true benefits of Lean. Human’s make bad choices even under the best intentions. Someone failing to follow Lean systems doesn’t mean Lean is the failure. I look forward to your future article in TMW.

  15. AvatarMarci

    I have an 8-year-old Toyota Solara (not in the recall), which I love, BUT…Lean manufacturing to blame (read that “cheaping out”)? Yes. But more importantly, Toyota failed to address this problem long ago when only a few insiders knew it was a problem. Ignoring problems seldom makes them go away. Toyota rightly deserves to be in the mess it’s currently having to dig itself out of. I have this timeless quote from philosopher John Ruskin posted at the counter where we wait on customers:
    “There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and people who consider price alone are that person’s lawful prey.
    “It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s unwise to pay too little, too. When you pay too much, you lose a little money, that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing you bought it to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot. It can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that, you will have enough to pay for something better.”
    You get what you pay for and Toyota is getting theirs.

  16. AvatarSteve Baranyk


    Lean Manufacturing itself had nothing to do with Toyota’s problem.

    It was simply poor execution of their design and Q.A. systems.

  17. AvatarRichard Boughton

    Did you know the cable that is the problem is manufactured in U.S. and the product that is not defective is made in the orient.


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