Toyota, General Motors and the Quest for Quality

A couple weeks ago, This American Life, the podcast from which this blog derives its name, aired an episode entitled NUMMI. The episode covered several aspects that led to General Motors’ decline and Toyota’s increased market share among auto-makers in the United States in the 1990s.

One of the cited reasons for GM’s downfall stood out in my mind: the emphasis of quantity over quality. While Toyota stressed manufacturing reliable cars, GM was trying to maximize the number of cars it was able to produce behind the idea that repairs could be taken care of at a later time. Ultimately, the consumers lost confidence in GM’s product, GM went bankrupt, and it was bailed out by the US government with $50 billion of taxpayer money.

Why did Toyota stress reliability and GM highlight volume? From the point of view of the podcast, it had to do with the management structure as well as labor relations between the auto-workers and upper management. Without getting mired in details, Toyota had a far superior management structure where workers felt like they could contribute ideas and wanted the product to succeed.

I bring these issues up because in today’s academic climate in the sciences, there are some apt parallels. Because of the structure put in place either by government funding agencies or by the administrators at universities, there is an ever-increasing pressure to publish papers. Of course, the added emphasis on volume does not necessarily have to lead to a decline in quality, but there does appear to be an inherent tension between quantity and quality. It is quite easy to intuit that in a world where publication quality reigns supreme, there would be far fewer publications in total.

There is a lot of fantastic science done in the present time, but because of the pressure to publish papers I am afraid that there is not enough time for a thorough education and proper scientific development. It is interesting to note that Richard Feynman published a moderate 85 refereed publications in his lifetime, but they were often of the highest quality. Truly remarkable breakthroughs take years of deep thought, synthesis and attention to detail, i.e. time.

It would be great to see a more concerted effort to manufacture more reliable cars, not just making many cars with the hope that a few will be manufactured well.


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