Downstream blindness

In the 1960s and the 1970s, car manufacturing plants in the US would be filled with bins of fasteners.

Workers on the assembly line would then dip into this bin to find a bolt for their assembly. If the bolt didn’t fit, they would throw it to a discard pile and reach into the bin for another bolt. Even if they spotted a defective bolt, they were encouraged to find a replacement and keep the line moving.

It was important to keep the assembly line moving. Any break in flow would cost the company thousands of dollars. Therefore, it was cheaper to use tolerate imperfect fasteners in the supply chain and keep the line moving. As a result, American cars were less reliable. They broke down more often. The problem of stopping the line was visible to the plant managers, but not the quality issues that this decision caused downstream.

Japanese car manufacturers adopted a different approach. Whenever workers spotted even a minor defect, they would stop the entire assembly line, analyze it and remedy it. That way, this defect would not move downstream and affect hundreds of vehicles. Because the interruption came at a great cost, they took every measure to ensure that it didn’t happen again.

When Toyota cars hit the market in the 1960’s, their parts fit more perfectly and with fewer defecty than any other car before it. The Toyota Corolla, launched in the 1960s’, remains the world’s best selling car today.

It is expensive to break the flow of an assembly line. However, it is more expensive to let defects flow through. The second kind of cost is harder to see, but can be deadly. It ultimately drove American car manufacturers to bankruptcy.

In today’s complex world, our decisions and actions always have consequences downstream that we are likely to be blind to. When we make a compromise, what are the ways it backfire downstream?

Quality is consistency

McDonald’s doesn’t make the best burgers. The key to their success has merely been to deliver a consistent taste. 

Indigo Airlines didn’t operate the fanciest flights. Yet, it became India’s most successful airline by ensuring a no-frills, consistent flying experience.

The Romans weren’t the best individual soldiers of the ancient world. But they ruled over the vast perimeters of the Mediterranian because they commanded the most consistent and disciplined armies.

Quality is the act of meeting a particular standard consistently. To deliver extraordinary quality is merely to produce ordinary results again and again and again.

Whose job is it to control quality?

On an industrial assembly line, whose job is it to ensure the quality of the components being manufactured?

Is it the job of the QA department? Is it the job of a person with a clipboard, who looks at finished products in the line and removes defective pieces? Well, in most factories, this was (and still is) the case. Quality is one department’s job, and it is that department’s responsibility to deflect defects before they reach the customer.

But at Toyota, they did things differently, and this turned them into world leaders in quality manufacturing.

At a Toyota factory, when any worker on the assembly line spotted a defect in the line, he/she would pull on a cord called the Andon cord to stop the entire assembly line. As soon as the cord is pulled, a sequence of events follow in quick succession

  1. ‘Go see’ – The plant manager walks over to see the defect for themselves, rather than have somebody reporting it to them.
  2. ‘Thank you’ – The manager then thanks the worker who pulled the cord for presenting an opportunity for the company to improve.
  3. ‘How can I help you’ – The manager then asks the worker who pulled the cord, ‘How can I help you fix this issue. The key word here is you – the worker who pulls the cord is given the responsibility and the resources to fix the issue. This fix is assigned the highest priority.

At Toyota, improvement of daily work took precedence over merely performing it, through a principle called Kaizen – continuous improvement. In a Toyota assembly line, quality was everybody’s responsibility.

When a worker stops the assembly line to point out a defect, there are two roads an organization can take. They can see the worker as a disruption, and consider the break as an interruption that costs the company millions of dollars in lost revenue. The road less taken is to thank the worker for identifying an opportunity to improve, and see the time spent as and investment towards better quality.

Toyota chose the road less taken and it has made all the difference.

Inspiration: The Andon Cord