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April 2010

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Toyota and the Marketing Threat to Quality Assurance

by Glen Emerson Morris
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Recently I was asked in a job interview what I thought the biggest threat to software quality was. My answer was “the marketing department.” While the answer might seem flippant, I know of few senior quality assurance professionals who would disagree with it. I couldn't count the time when features were added to an application I was testing too late in the development cycle to be tested adequately. As one Director of QA once put it, at an emergency meeting to try to figure out how to test newly added features in the little time remaining, “Our biggest threat now is another bright guy with another bright idea.”

Dreaming up new features is one of the main things marketing types are paid for. The problem, from an engineering perspective, is that sometimes marketing types don't know when to quit.

Toyota is a great example of this principle in action. Its marketing types have created some of the most complex and sophisticated cars ever sold. Unfortunately, neither the marketing team or Toyota's senior management fully understood what would be required to build cars that complex and still maintain the expected level of quality. After all, it's no easy task. A Prius has the mechanical problems of a car, plus the software and hardware problems of a computer, plus a set of problems with all of the sensors and other interfaces that allow the car and computer to talk to each other (a whole new category of gadgets). An intermittent problem in a dynamically variable complex system like a Prius can be extraordinarily difficult and costly to fix.

In fact, designing a car as complex as a Prius can be extraordinarily difficult, and expecting it to work reliably is, at best, a high risk marketing strategy. Unfortunately, Toyota seems to have missed this point entirely by going on to commit three major errors, all of which increased the risk factor enormously. It expanded its vehicle line without adequately expanding its QA budget, it implemented a ruthless cost reduction program that compromised quality in ways it could no longer detect, it actively suppressed evidence of product failures reported by its customers and its own employees. It was a perfect storm for product quality.

In Toyota's defense, it can be hard to estimate what it will take to adequately test new code, whether it's a word processor or a new section of a Website. In the industry standard software development process, CMMI, the ability to estimate QA cost accurately only begins at the fourth of five levels. Still, this is a known issue and Toyota had the resources to estimate actual costs better than it did, and to budget adequately for them.

However, where Toyota really went off the deep end was the way senior management ignored and suppressed reports of problems from both its own engineers and Prius owners.

Even computer legend Steve Wozniak was initially unable to get Toyota's attention about an acceleration problem in a Prius he owns. (For that matter, he couldn't even get the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to listen.) When Toyota denied there was an acceleration problem with the particular model in question, Wozniak posted the steps to reproduce it on the Internet. Speaking at the Discovery 2010 Forum in San Francisco he said, “This is software. It's not a bad accelerator pedal. It's very scary, but luckily for me, I can hit the brakes.” Last heard, Toyota had asked to borrow Wozniak's Prius for the weekend for testing purposes.

Toyota's engineers weren't listened to, either, but this isn't surprising. There's always been a strong tendency in corporate management worldwide to downplay the warnings from QA and engineering about product quality as alarmist, unwarranted, even disloyal. Even worse, some companies consider successful quality assurance to be simply a matter of attitude. If the QA department has a positive attitude, and is willing to work nights and weekends, the product or Website can't fail. In reality, QA is much more comparable to financial auditing. Attitude has nothing to do with it.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Toyota case is that it is just a microcosm of a much larger problem facing our society. Over the past decade a lot of bright guys have added computers to things we never thought would have computers; coffee makers, refrigerators, even cars. This put a lot of manufacturers in the computer business even though they had no previous experience with that technology at all. Designing and testing complicated software is an acquired skill, and many manufacturers simple don't have the experience to maintain a high level of quality, including the car industry.

The result is that today we live in a world where many life critical functions are handled by embedded computers no more reliable than our desktop computer. It's not surprising that we are seeing a new category of cause of death, that of death by computer malfunction. Statistics are a bit hard to come by, because no national agency is responsible for totals. As is, fatalities resulting from the failure of flight management computer systems onboard aircraft are counted separately from fatalities caused by the failure of computer systems in cars. We haven't even learned how to count our fatalities properly yet, let alone design safe products.

As a society we accept these losses as part of the price of progress, but this doesn't excuse manufacturers from doing everything economically feasible to make products and services as safe as possible. Toyota's mistakes make well cost it two or three billion dollars.

Whether Toyota learns its lesson is up to Toyota. Whether we learn a lesson from Toyota's mistakes is up to us, and it's simple enough there's no excuse for missing the point.

The addition of any new feature or service to your business always carries a certain risk that quality will suffer as a result. Before you commit to anything new, always do a QA risk analysis first. Determine what it will cost to provide adequate quality, and how much it could cost for varying degrees of failure. Adequate testing will be expensive, but as Toyota found out the hard way, the alternatives to adequate testing can prove to be even more expensive.



Glen Emerson Morris was recently a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.





Copyright 1994 - 2009 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved


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