Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Toyota's KM Problem

Came across this interesting post (by Jack) on the recent Toyota Recall and the associated knowledge management 'problem'. It got my mind running on what could be the potential approaches to deal with such a situation especially because I've been thinking hard about some of these mechanisms for a few months now. 
Extracts from Jack's blog:

The recent Toyota recall and particularly the reporting of the U.S. congressional hearings on the subject turned up at least one tidbit related to knowledge management.  Today's article in the International Herald Tribune isn't published online yet, U.S. official takes heat at Toyota hearing by Micheline Maynard, who seems to be a key reporter on this topic for the NY Times.
The KM connection?  It turns out information and concerns about the sticking accelerator was known and fixed in Europe at least a year before it became a problem in the U.S.
Mr. Inaba ... acknowledged that Toyota had been aware of issues with sticking pedals in Europe for over a year before accidents were reported in the United States.
What happened?  Toyota is regarded as an advanced company with practices in manufacturing and continuous improvement that have made it one of the biggest automobile manufacturers in the world.  The Toyota Production System has been the subject of books and education around the world.  Toyota are even regarded as a Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise.
This is what happened.
Mr. Inaba said the information had been contained in a company database but that it could have been found only if a staff member had known where to look.

To my mind, two simple ways in which such a situation could possibly be approached are:

1. Processes that suggest problems & solutions from an appropriate database at the time of project documentation or any other appropriate project registration activity
2. Smart Enterprise 2.0 mechanisms that automatically retrieve relevant content or even just pointers based on attributes and tags related to domain, technical challenge, expertise area, region etc  

Not sure if what I am imagining in my mind's eye is obvious to the reader but I think it's time we stopped expecting people to consciously look/locate/scout for information - and know exactly where to look - every time they do something that is knowledge-intensive (which could be 'always'). I don't think it is feasible as people may not necessarily be able to predict problems more than anything else. But on the other hand, a smart Enterprise 2.0 based portal that proactively digs into various knowledge sources (as mentioned in #2 above) and floats up relevant content and pointers to content on an employee-specific or project-specific page may make a significant difference. The prerequisite, of course, is that problems encountered elsewhere must be documented or at least mentioned in some form or the other.   


Ramesh said...

Come on:
When one of your products has a defect, don't you cross check if others in Market too have it? When anything drastic happens you do not require software and databases for people to check your own back.

Is Toyota so compartmentalized that a Brake issue on its model is known only to the local region. Surprising.

The thing that Yudhistra was astonished is despite seeing people dying around, humans seem to forget that they are mortal too.

Ramesh SN

Nimmy said...

Interesting thoughts, Ramesh. If I understand it right, in this particular context, Toyota did not identify the problem till it was too late (which definitely is shocking). Defective products (cars) were delivered to customers. So, it was a reactive situation.

It definitely is surprising that Toyota's regional divisions did not seem to have been tuned into what was happening in other regions. Also, it is surprising that the problem was no tom-tommed to other regions in a way that would have prevented it from happening again. Anyway, guess we only get pieces of the story as outsiders.

I love that very relevant observation of yours re. mortality - from Mahabharat. Thought-provoking and so true! We don't wake up before our personal alarm rings...

Ramesh said...

Agree - as outsiders we will never get the complete story.

Even in organizations which are in forefront of technology and processes , with painful checks and balances in place to ensure even the tiny bit of info is caught- often critical warnings have not been sounded/ heard correctly