TOYOTA CITY, Japan (July 8, 2010 ) — Toyota Motor Corp. will give its product development engineers an additional month to complete vehicles, and has created an engineering team of “devil's advocates” to address potential quality problems in an effort to prevent more image-damaging recalls.
“The fast growth of the past decade has been too much in some areas for the company to keep up with,” Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada told reporters at Toyota headquarters July 7.
He added that Toyota's future growth will be determined by its engineering capacity.
Mr. Uchiyamada, who is in charge of research and development, said Toyota has allocated 1,000 engineers—up 50 percent—to deal with quality issues.
Of that group, a new team of 100 “Devil's Advocate” engineers will work independently to audit vehicle quality from the perspective of drivers, 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,” he said, adding that doing so could help identify problems, like the issue of stacked or loose floor mats, before vehicles hit the market.
“We want them to be a little mean,” he said.
Toyota's internal thinking may have blinded it to faults in its vehicles, company executives said. The new teams will take a “neutral stance” as part of their “early detection, early resolution” mission, said Katsutoshi Sakata, general manager of the new design quality innovation division.
“In the past, we were not paying sufficient attention to the customer's viewpoint,” Mr. Sakata said. “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.”
“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,” said Mr. Uchiyamada, Toyota's top engineer.
At the same time, Toyota's chief engineers—who already wield great power—will “more than ever have a degree of freedom and solidarity during the [vehicle] evaluation period,” Mr. Uchiyamada said.
He placed partial blame for Toyota's quality woes on an inability to maintain clear communication with outside suppliers and contract engineers.
“It is not just 'supply to spec' and let the suppliers produce the part,” Mr. Uchiyamada said. “When we outsource, we would like to check the thinking of the suppliers' design, how they manufacture and how they do evaluation.”
Mr. Uchiyamada said Toyota will bring more engineering work in-house.
“We cannot immediately do it, because we cannot layoff outside engineers because of their contract terms, but maybe we do not extend the contracts,” he said.
Toyota announced a number of steps earlier this year to reverse a quality slide and win back consumer confidence, including setting up a 50-member committee, chaired by President Akio Toyoda, aimed at giving more autonomy to regional operations to speed up decisions on quality issues.
The various initiatives to boost vehicle quality likely would result in a slight rise in development costs per vehicle in the short term, Mr. Uchiyamada said, noting that the average lead time for vehicle development in Japan has so far been about 24 months.
Mr. Uchiyamada said Toyota had added a new layer of management in engineering and has appointed assistant managers to create smaller work teams. However, these steps are an ongoing part of the “Customer First” philosophy that was initiated in 2007 under previous CEO Katsuaki Watanabe.
In a sign that these problems could be institutional in nature, Toyota's recalls have not eased, leaving consumers wondering whether quality fixes are working.
This week, Toyota recalled 270,000 cars—mostly Lexus vehicles in the U.S.—to fix potentially defective valve springs, a problem that could lead to an engine tearing itself apart. That came less than two weeks after a separate recall of a hybrid Lexus sedan to repair a potential fuel leak.
Since November, the Japanese auto maker has recalled 10.8 million vehicles worldwide.
Reuters contributed to this report, which appeared in Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.