Last Wednesday Toyota temporarily halted sales of 8 models in a recall related to a problem with gas pedals. This was enough for Industry Week and the Agence France Presse to ask a fundamental question: "Has the company sacrificed its legendary quality to become the world's number one producer?" This recall that may affect more than 2M vehicles and is being extended to Europe and China. Actually this issue was first raised last September on the Toyota USA newsroom as a consumer safety advisory. A remedy was described in November 25th. Quickly scanning the Toyota Owners Club forum, I found indications of a pedal catching the carpet as far as June 22nd, 2009. And I only scanned a couple minutes.
My objective is absolutely not to want to blame Toyota for what they are doing. My point is different. With the proliferation of the Internet, a lot of information regarding the experience gained using a product is available in blogs, forums, on twitter, facebook and a variety of other social media. Are we looking at that and do we take notice.
A little after the HP/Compaq merger, the warranty of one of our notebooks went through the roof. Our product engineers had no clue of what was happening, and, with the objective of solving the problem, they tried to analyse the repair logs. Not having any particular tool available (a lot of those logs consist in notes typed by repair engineers), they loaded hundred of thousand of records in Microsoft Excel. It took them about 6 weeks to notice that, every time the modem card was replaced, the same happened with the keyboard. They could not see the correlation between both. They knew the modem card was a small printed circuit sitting above the motherboard. They also knew that, to access the motherboard, the keyboard had to be removed. But that's about the only link between both. So, they went to talk to the repair engineers (mostly done by third parties) and discovered the way to remove the keyboard had not been well described, resulting in many of them pushing a screwdriver under the keyboard and lifting. I let you imagine the result. We had gotten a bad batch of modem cards, but our poor documentation made things worse.
We could not allow this to happen a second time. This is why we put an early warning system in place. We upload repair logs, and a lot of information from the web in a system that analyses the unstructured data and highlights recurring elements. This allows us to very quickly spot potential problem areas and check whether those require a recall, a redesign or both.
In working closely with our distributor and repair channel, we receive the raw information required to perform the analysis. Working closely with suppliers and our own product development & engineering, we address issues early. In doing this we have saved millions of dollars over the last 6 years, being able to limit recalls to much smaller batches, which is obviously way less costly.
Maybe Toyota could have done the same, spotting the problem earlier, limiting the amount of cars they need to recall. At the same time a couple accidents might have been avoided. Toyota is not alone in this situation. This is common throughout the automotive and electronics industry. This is why we developed a customer version of our internal system to help the industry reduce warranty costs and spot issues early.