In an effort to bolster its damaged image and prevent future safety problems, Toyota Motor Corporation will provide its product development engineers additional time and has formed a team of “devils advocates” made up of engineers charged with finding potential quality and safety problems during the development cycle of its future models.
On Wednesday, Toyota’s executive vice president, Takeshi Uchiyamada told reports at the automakers world headquarters in Toyota City, Japan, “The fast growth of the past decade has been too much in some areas for the company to keep up with.” He also said the company’s future growth will be determined by its engineering capacity.
The head of Toyota’s research and development efforts said the Japanese automaker has increased the number of engineers tasked with quality improvement to 1,000, up from 500.
Of those 1,000 engineers, Uchiyamada said, 100 will play the role of “devil’s advocates”. They will work independently to identify potential quality issues that might be encountered by the average Toyota owner.
He said, “It’s important for our engineers to look at a vehicle and see how customers might use it in ways that haven’t been reflected in our testing.” Such testing, he added, might help Toyota identify and eliminate potential safety issues like the improperly installed floor mats that forced the automaker to recall over 4 million vehicles globally beginning last fall.
Of the devil’s advocate engineers, Uchiyamada said, “We want them to be a little mean.”
Toyota’s design quality innovation general manager, Katsutoshi Sakata, said the engineers in his division will officially take a “neutral stance” as they carry out their mission of “early detection, early resolution.”
“In the past,” Sakata said, “we were not paying sufficient attention to the customer’s viewpoint. Often, our R&D people believed our technology was correct. We need to take a more objective standpoint, with a calm eye to detect problems more readily.”
Uchiyamada said, “It’s important for our engineers to look at a vehicle and see how customers might use it in ways that haven’t been reflected in our testing.” He also said he will retain a high level of “freedom and solidarity” as new models undergo the evaluation process.
Uchiyamada echoed the sentiment expressed by a number of top Toyota executives that its recent quality issues were caused, to a large degree, by poor communication – both internally and with outside suppliers and contractors. He said, “It is not just ‘supply to spec’ and let the suppliers produce the part. When we outsource, we would like to check the thinking of the suppliers’ design, how they manufacture and how they do evaluation.”
Despite its new commitment to quality and safety and an aggressive and costly media blitz to reassure apprehensive consumers, Toyota’s quality problems continue to surface. Earlier this week, Toyota recalled 270,000 vehicles, primarily premium Lexus models, to repair defective valve springs that can cause severe engine problems. Two weeks earlier, it announced an unrelated recall to fix potentially leaky fuel tanks in its Lexus hybrid sedan, bringing the number of Toyota vehicles recalled worldwide since last November to 10.8 million.
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