Toyota’s problem: hardware weenies and poor accounting practices [updated]

Jamie Kitman’s look at the twisted path Toyota followed to it’s current difficulties inspired me to think about software and money – two topics I spend way too much time thinking about. As a purely disinterested observer (ahem) it has come to my attention, repeatedly, that manufacturing companies undervalue, underinvest in, and undertest software.  On a sales visit to a manufacturer of giant size industrial air-conditioners, I was told that some software improvements had reduced operating cost 25% but that purchasing software tools or hiring advanced consulting or top line engineers internally was out of the question. The software team was a capable enough group, but it did not contain anyone who could provide architectural perspective, help with design issues, understand tradeoffs involving OS/processor/board and so on so each project was a one-off desperate attempt to patch the existing undesign. The reason for this absence was simple: top level software engineers could not be hired for $40K/year.  The team manager sadly told me that accounting was not willing to place high value on weightless, invisible code and so the usual rules for R&D for inputs to the manufacturing process gave their team nearly nothing.

As a visitor to Japanese auto companies 10 years ago, I was blown away by the brilliance of the industrial design and the enormous investment in that, and shocked at the software development effort – one in which the software team was clearly considered to be low status. Not that my, more limited, experience with US companies was much more impressive. In fact, it was interesting that as Japanese auto companies were reaching out to at least look at advanced control software, US companies relegated that work to the outer periphery. Of course, this was some time ago, but obviously a $100M investment in top level control software development and test at Toyota a decade ago would have been a good investment – even if they had not given any of it to me.

Once I was visiting an office products manufacturer and discussing their new project. The hardware team had chosen to use a processor for which there was no solid compiler suite, no existing strong web or network or other components etc. because it was cheap. I explained that the choice of processor was fine with us, but that our prices for providing basic RTOS support would be high due to the necessity of compensating for this environmental limitation. The team broke into a raucous argument between the software developers and the hardware engineers – with the software people basically yelling “we told you idiots!”.

One of the things that struck me at a Japanese auto company was how the manufacturing discipline that allowed them to make such high quality hardware was not even attempted with software. Software is still not taken seriously as a manufacturing area – and the consequences are not happy ones. See the article by founders of Coverity for a great tour of the strange views tolerated within software development

Do bugs matter? Companies buy bug-finding tools because they see bugs as bad. However, not everyone agrees that bugs matter. The following event has occurred during numerous trials. The tool finds a clear, ugly error (memory corruption or use-after-free) in important code, and the interaction with the customer goes like thus:

“So?”

“Isn’t that bad? What happens if you hit it?”

“Oh, it’ll crash. We’ll get a call.” [Shrug.]