Time has a terrific overview, with some insightful analysis, on the Toyota meltdown: Behind the Troubles at Toyota by Bill Saporito with Michael Schuman and Joseph Szczesny. Here are three key excerpts:
“The big deal is this question, Does an organization know how to hear and respond to weak signals, which are the problems, or does it have to hear strong signals? You have to listen to weak signals. By the time you get to strong signals, it’s too late.” (Steven Spear of MIT, author of Chasing the Rabbit: How Market Leaders Outdistance the Competition and an expert in the dynamics of high-performance companies).
When weak signals started coming out in 2002, Toyota’s top management wasn’t listening.
Complexity is the enemy of any manufacturer, and rapid growth increases it.
We’ve already posted a couple of times about Toyota’s failed crisis management (its “dreadful crisis management,” says the Time article). It is clear that they knew of their problems long before the current crisis. The Time article points out that the first National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigations came in 2003.
I keep thinking about the counsel I get consistently from the best business books, and one clear and oft-repeated message is this:
stop, look, pay attention, spot problems, and open your mouth loudly to call attention to these problems!
Here’s a quote that might put it in simple English:
The design thinker, in the words of novelist Saul Bellow, is “a first-class noticer.”
(from The Design of Business by Roger Martin).
The process really is simple. Make sure you have a number of “first-class noticers” in your company, encourage them to notice things, and listen to them, actually listen to them, when they tell you something.
Toyota had these “weak signals” coming at them, but they did not pay attention. I suspect that workplace segregation played a key role – the people at the top just simply do not interact often enough with the rest of the people in the real world, from employees to vendors to customers… (Note: “interact with” means have conversations with means listen to…) And, as the Time article says, “by the time you get strong signals, it’s too late.”
So it seems to me that this rather old and well-worn advice could have been pretty helpful:
Stop – look – listen.