Tag: Toyota recall 2009

The Michael Crichton Strain

January 29th, 2010 — 11:01am

Michael Crichton was the author who ensured that English speaking children know – and can perfectly pronounce – the names of at least ten dinosaurs. I read the first of his 26 novels, The Andromeda Strain, in 1976 and several others – including the ones about dinosaurs, Jurassic Park and The Lost World – in subsequent years. He also created the extremely popular TV show ER; I didn’t see even a single episode of the show. He passed away in November 2008.

I liked reading his books because many, if not all, of them dealt with the complexities of a world I knew well: the intersection of advanced technology and business. However, I am definitely not a “Crichton groupie;” I stopped reading him in the early 1990s, because I felt that his 1992 book, Rising Sun, had racist undertones. This decision means that Mr. Crichton may well have held positions about which I know absolutely nothing.

Mr. Crichton’s writings introduced me to an extraordinarily powerful idea: humans are creating ever more complex technological systems without truly understanding their implications. They think they can completely control these, but the reality is they can’t. For example, consider the following extract from a speech on environmentalism, as it is reported on “Michael Crichton, The Official Site”: “Most people assume linearity in environmental processes, but the world is largely non-linear: it’s a complex system. An important feature of complex systems is that we don’t know how they work. We don’t understand them except in a general way; we simply interact with them. Whenever we think we understand them, we learn we don’t. Sometimes spectacularly.”

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this idea when the news about Toyota’s ever-expanding recall came into the public spotlight. How could a company so admired and emulated falter so badly? One explanation is that the Company’s relentless pursuit of growth over the last decade caused it to take its eye off quality. Toyota’s new CEO, Akio Toyoda, shares this view; when he got the job in October 2009, he apologized profusely in public for the quality problems that Toyota had experienced. As time would tell, those were nothing compared to what’s happening right now. (I will return to this explanation in a future post.)

A second possible explanation drove me to introduce Michael Crichton here: we are building cars so complex that we really don’t understand how they function and why they do what they do. So far, no one knows what ails the Toyotas. Is it a mechanical problem with the accelerator pedal made by the US company CTS? These pedals are being replaced not just on Toyota but also on other cars. But even Toyota doesn’t think this is the key explanation. Mechanical problems are generally easy to diagnose because we can actually see what’s wrong. The “improper floormats” explanation is also, at best, a secondary one. Right now, the focus seems to be on the electronics that control acceleration – and possibly, even the embedded software. Yet no one has yet figured out what this problem is. So, unless the real story has not been made publicly available (which is always possible), this explanation is still speculation; perhaps informed speculation, but speculation nevertheless.

Many years ago, I had started writing – and then abandoned – a book on manufacturing. In that effort I had assailed the belief that some software companies popularized in the 1990s: “Get it 80% right and ship.” Customers will tell you what is wrong – and you can fix it then. An incredibly simplistic belief in the power of being first to market drove this view. I hope it gets buried soon, for Apple is only the latest company to show that first mover advantages are highly overrated.) Couple this view with Mr. Crichton’s lesson and the dangers of following it become immediately obvious.

In 2006/2007, I was writing The Spider’s Strategy. I pointed out that the holy grail of modern product development – “make it modular” – had major limits. Companies like modularity because it gives (1) the flexibility to use the same parts in different places and (2) the ability to outsource design and manufacturing work in discrete chunks. I cited examples of product failures that had afflicted some of the best known brands in the world, including Toyota and argued that the weakness of this thinking lay in the electronics and software. This limitation made it essential for companies to collaborate closely with their design and manufacturing partners.

Toyota understood this fact better than most other companies. This is why it focused on building strong partnerships with its suppliers. Those partnerships had helped it make the jump from a Lean company to a networked company. It is truly sad that along the way somehow its management unlearnt this critically important lesson.

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