Of cheetahs and Toyotas

February 06, 2010

In a previous post I promised to provide my guesses on what factors may have contributed to the recalls Toyota is facing right now. Here are a few:

a) Increasing interwoven system complexity. What were once purely mechanical system with very intuitive failure modes (hey... that cable broke) have evolved to electro-mechanical systems and now electro-mechanical systems with integrated micro-processor control and firmware. Failure modes that previously lay entirely within a single discipline now splash messily across functional areas. Electrical and software problems are particularly bedeviling and notoriously hard to faithfully observe, detect and eradicate.

b) Increased reliance on outside suppliers for subsystem engineering. Once upon a time a company's engineers would design and meticulously test each and every aspect of a product's function. No more. More often suppliers are brought in to "black box" or "gray box" subsystem leaving the company's engineers to often function as "system integrators" - a sort of general contractor. At its best this system can leave the details to subsystem experts. At its worst, it is a recipe for omissions, mistakes, confusion, finger pointing. 

Failure modes that previously lay entirely within a single discipline now splash messily across functional areas.

c) Platform Engineering. Toyota is the mastery of assembling a huge variety of unique cars from a building block of components and systems that are fundamentally identical. At its best, this practice allows for reduced costs, increased development speed and adoption of best practices. At its worse, systems end up over-designed for some applications or under designed for others. Change can be slow and improvements forgone because of the interwoven complexity of validating revisions on every instance where a system is used. Furthermore, as this situation has shown, if design errors do crop up in fundamental components and systems used through the platform the effects and scope can be far-reaching. I was sharing this theory with a former classmate and he commented on the similarity between platform engineering and the risks associated with a lack of genetic diversity…

"It is not a trivial thing to lose your genetic variation,'' said Dr. Stephen O'Brien, head of the research team. ''Genetic variation exists so ecological pressures can be adapted to."

d) Finally, I firmly believe a potential culprit is Toyota's massive recent success combined with relentless plans for expansion. It seems entirely probable that Toyota tremendous expansion and a well publicized plan for industry domination lead to a degree of rapid growth, internal pressure, hubris, disorganization and errors.