Thursday, February 25, 2010

Why I don't believe the Toyota slander

One of the subjects that I researched in the process of writing Elegant Technology was quality control.  Obviously, the better the product, the longer it lasts.  The longer it lasts, the less effect it has on the environment (within reasonable limits.)  This being the 1980s, the most interesting writing on the topic concerned Toyota.  Many writers wrote about her quality control efforts because she was very open about her methods.

Most people think that high quality comes from being careful and inspecting the work very often.  Toyota proved such thinking was worse than useless.  Inspection was a waste of time, they reasoned, because IF something had been badly produced, merely finding it out didn't solve the problem.  According to Toyota, the road to high quality lay in implementing methods that assured every part was built right the first time, every time.  And so, a study of Toyota quality control was a study of their methods of always getting it right.  For example the Toyota method included rules such as poke-yoke--a mandate that said every part had to be designed so it could only be put in place one way.  Not upside down.  Not left-right reversed.

Of course, not everything could be reduced to a simple and obvious rules like poke-yoke.  For example, let's assume you want to drill a prefect hole in the perfect place.  When the tools are first set up, it's pretty simple to get the results you need.  However, over time, the drill bit will get dull and the restraints that hold the part in place will loosen or otherwise move slightly.  At some point, the part will no longer meet specifications.  Toyota's answer to this dilemma was to take careful and routine measurements to determine how long it took for a set-up to go out of spec.  If it was found that 43,000 holes could be drilled before a dull bit started making bad parts, the solution was to change the bit at 42,000 parts (for example).  Over time, experience would teach Toyota how to make a whole car out of statistically perfect parts while poke-yoke would ensure those perfect parts would always be assembled correctly.

Using methods like this, Toyota was soon producing cars with incredible quality designed and built in.  Folks began to notice that their Toyotas seemed to last forever and almost never broke down.  Whatever was wrong with a Toyota, reliability was NEVER the problem.

After reading about ten books on Toyota's methods, I became convinced that either you built things the way they did, or you built an inferior product.  Toyota's methods were pure genius.  However, this story did not really fit into Elegant Technology, so my discoveries were reduced to a pithy footnote for Chapter Eight: Tools. I wrote in the summer of 1987, "Toyota has also proven that once it has learned how to make a cheap car better than an expensive car, making an expensive car better than anything on the planet is only a matter of time." more

What makes me especially proud of that sentence is the fact that when it was written, there was no way for a writer in St. Paul Minnesota to know that Toyota was planning to build an expensive car.  But in 1989, Toyota announced that it was going to produce a premium car line they intended to name Lexus.  Their Lexus would compete with cars like Mercedes Benz and Cadillac.  The automotive writers were highly skeptical--how did a company intend to compete with car lines reeking of tradition? they howled.  "With superior build quality" was the only response Toyota could offer.  And a Lexus would be built to statistical tolerances a mathematical order of magnitude more stringent that normal Toyotas in the most modern factory ever built (Tahara.)

Yet, superior build quality would prove enough.  Soon Lexus would come to dominate their market.  It seems that even rich folks who CAN afford expensive repairs like reliable cars as well.

Lexus tops JD Power Customer Service Index

In the fall of 2006, my 1984 Saab 900 with 296,000 miles on it was caught in a tennis-ball-sized hailstorm.  Time to finally get new wheels--even though I quite like the process of keeping old cars running.  So having predicted Lexus before it existed in USA, I thought I deserved one--especially since I believed that there were some well-maintained old ones for sale.  So I got a 1996 LS in nearly flawless condition sold by a fellow techno-literate.  I figured a second generation model in its second year of production would be perfect.   And here it is the day I took delivery

Even though I know a great deal about Toyota's build quality, this Lexus continues to astonish and delight.  Last spring, I drove it to Florida.  What a superb ride.  On the way home, I drove from south of Nashville TN to my southwest suburb of Minneapolis in one shot, by myself, 940 miles.  The next day I was so delighted with my old Lexus I decided to clean it up from the journey and give it another coat of paste wax.

So this is how my 14-year-old car can look showroom new.  It still gets over 27 mpg on trips.  It still is quiet enough in the cabin at freeway speeds to listen to classical music, and it still is as reliable as an anvil.  And this is why I hope this will be the last car I ever own.

So to those grandstanding pols who want us to believe that Toyota is somehow now deliberately making dangerous junk I say, "How can someone like you who is lucky to get something right a couple of times a YEAR criticize folks who get thousands of things absolutely perfect every DAY?"

1 comment:

  1. And it’s clever that they have used a soft roof top on this military car so that the weight of the car will be decreased. I was thinking on which is better? This military car or Toyota branded vehicle?