Hindsight’s Still 20-20: The Toyota Quality Report

We here at the Safety Record Blog are getting caught up on our blogging after a hectic  before-the-holiday-weekend week attending Edmund.com’s Let’s Blame it on the Drivers conference and releasing our response to the NHTSA and NESC report on Toyota. If you haven’t had a chance to read this special edition of The Safety Record, you can catch it here.

And son of a gun if Toyota didn’t release its long awaited quality report on the same day! (A little awkward, we know.) This panel of Very Serious People outside of the company was charged with the task of evaluating just what went wrong:

“The Charter directs the Panel to conduct a thorough and independent review of the soundness of these processes and provide its assessment to Toyota’s senior management.”

The 60-page result, A Road Forward: The Report of the Toyota North American Quality Advisory Panel was pretty much a re-hash of everything that has already been reported, and largely air-brushed at that.

The panel did find some room for improvement, and we liked the part about Toyota’s response to outside critics: “First, while it is clear that Toyota applies the TPS [Toyota Production System] process and the Toyota Way to problems or flaws found internally, Toyota does not appear to treat feedback from external sources, including customers, independent rating agencies, and regulators, the same way.” SRS must have been dropped from that list.  “For example, it doesn’t appear that Toyota applied genchi genbutsu [go and see] as quickly and thoroughly as it could have in investigating and seeking out the root causes of customer complaints regarding issues such as UA.” Instead it reacted to customer complaints with “skepticism” and “defensiveness.” Would hiring a well-connected public relations firm to smear SRS count as skepticism or defensiveness? What about charging down to Southern Illinois University to scare the begeebers out of Professor Dave Gilbert’s bosses? (This stuff was no doubt edited from the final version.)

We personally had a lot of fun reading the footnotes – 160 of them – to see what heretofore unknown documents contributed to this deep dive into the quality problems plaguing the world’s number one automaker.  Let’s see: A lot of Toyota press releases, some NHTSA press releases and news clippings; a few books about the Toyota company culture you can buy on Amazon and the NHTSA and NASA reports.

The panel was positively cheerful about the last two. It cited them as the number one reason to feel optimistic about the quality of Toyota vehicles: “..extensive testing and analysis by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have revealed no electronic problems or software errors that could have resulted in unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.”

Geez, we know that a lot of scientific words can be off-putting, but did anyone read that NESC report? We mean the whole thing. We read it and re-read it, and it doesn’t inspire confidence in Toyota’s electronics.

At least one panel member, Brian O’Neill, former president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, might have read it. In a story by Bloomberg News about the report, O’Neill averred that perhaps the safety of Toyota’s electronics had not been so definitively settled.

“There’s still a serious debate as to whether these were serious safety problems,” O’Neill said.