Toyota: Did Six Sigma Fail or Did People Fail?

One can reasonably argue that processes don’t produce results, people do.  In and of itself a process does nothing.  It takes people to engage in a process – for better or for worse – to produce something.  On the other hand are quality pioneers like Edwards Deming who says: “Eighty-five percent of the reasons for failure to meet customer expectations are related to deficiencies in systems and process . . . rather than the employee.” “The role of management is to change the process rather than badger individuals to do better.”  This quote does not take people completely out of the equation, but it places the focus squarely on the process rather than people.

Whether processes or people fail is not merely an academic question – it determines how we run our business.  Every day we make dozens of business decisions.  Both the decision maker and the information on which the decision is based are part of the decision making process.  To make business decisions we to rely on information.  Sometimes this information is based on “hard” data that has been collected, analyzed and interpreted – at other times we rely on “gut level instinct” that has been honed by years of experience.  Regardless of where the information originates and how it was derived, the decision maker controls whether and how it used.

Decision makers are influenced by more than their perception of the information itself.  Other factors, such as a vested interest in the outcome and one’s ability to understand the full significance of a piece of information, also play an important role.  Bextra, Seroquel and Vioxx are just a few of the better known Pharma industry examples to illustrate how difficult the interpretation of data can be – and how much of its interpretation and perceived significance can be motivated by a vested interest.  The drug dilution scandal involving Robert Courtney provides an excellent case study of what it takes before individual data points come together to tell a compelling story.

Neither people nor processes are perfect – simply because no one can really define what “perfection” means.   No matter how well designed, processes are prone to failure when they do not keep pace with changes and when people lack adequate training, experience and time to do the work.   Can a shrinking economy and vanishing jobs sustain processes that manage thousands of details?  When people worry about their jobs, how do we decide which details to stop paying attention to?  When people are overworked and pressed to do more than one job, can they still absorb all the information necessary to do everything well?  When an emergency takes place, how many resources will it drain from other vital matters?

Let us leave the discussion of whether Six Sigma is a process, a methodology or a philosophy for another day and simply call it a “process” for making business decisions to improve the quality of our goods and services.  This said, do the massive recalls from Toyota indicate that quality processes like Six Sigma are slow to adapt to a world in recession?  Are they simply too resource intensive and complicated?  Rather than blaming the process, is the company at fault for not having the right people and incentives in place to adapt processes to a changing world?  What are the implications for those of us who collect, analyze and consume data to make business decisions?

Further Reading:

The Significance of Sigma: Toyota’s Lessons in Corporate Decision Making

Visiting Toyota


Toyota’s Digital Disaster

In the Google era, how do you manage a product recall and a public-relations fiasco? Don’t do what Toyota’s done.

2 comments to Toyota: Did Six Sigma Fail or Did People Fail?

  • Claudia

    In this way accident, ignorance or laziness can be controlled, if all the required elements are not in place (quality) then you cannot move on.

    So true.

    The question here shouldn’t be whether the methodology failed or the people failed. It should be whether the methodology was implemented, explained, and managed properly by the people who decided to put it in place.

    Six sigma is a great methodology, it’s not magic. It still requires work, management and checks/balances.


    I feel that written process is of little use unless it is supported by intelligent interactive control.
    What do I mean? If a process is truly to be enforced it must monitor itself at its root.
    How many times do you fill in a form with mandatory fields, process must be built in the same way.
    Review the process but build in intelligence.
    In this way accident, ignorance or laziness can be controlled, if all the required elements are not in place (quality) then you cannot move on.
    Standered process without enforcement fails.
    Each and every step along the way must be controlled and understood as a Yes/No.
    You cannot hand Part of your process to another group within your company or another company without eliminating the internal issues.
    By throwing the problem over the fence or trying to transfer the cost you only buy a little time.
    The problems do not go away and they are still your problem as the final product has your name on it.