Toyota Never Stops Refining Formula for Success

Assembly Line i i

hide captionPart of Toyota's formula for success includes encouraging workers on the assembly line to come up with new ideas to help the plant run more efficiently.

David Stephenson for NPR
Assembly Line

Part of Toyota's formula for success includes encouraging workers on the assembly line to come up with new ideas to help the plant run more efficiently.

David Stephenson for NPR

The Georgetown Plant

  • Opened in 1988.
  • Will build 522,000 vehicles this fiscal year.
  • Represents an investment of $5.5 billion on Toyota's part.
  • Employs about 7,000 workers.
  • Is 7.5 million square feet, which is the equivalent of 156 football fields.

Toyota Interview

Jim Press, president of Toyota Motor North America, talks about what makes his company tick.

Quiet Tunnel i i

hide captionThe plant in Georgetown has installed two "quiet tunnels." One tunnel enables test drivers to listen for minute squeaks and noises in the cars in motion. In the other tunnel, doors and trunks are opened and closed, and windows are lowered and raised.

David Stephenson for NPR
Quiet Tunnel

The plant in Georgetown has installed two "quiet tunnels." One tunnel enables test drivers to listen for minute squeaks and noises in the cars in motion. In the other tunnel, doors and trunks are opened and closed, and windows are lowered and raised.

David Stephenson for NPR
Robot i i

hide captionWorkers in the Georgetown plant found that it was far cheaper to build their own robots than to buy them from suppliers.

David Stephenson for NPR
Robot

Workers in the Georgetown plant found that it was far cheaper to build their own robots than to buy them from suppliers.

David Stephenson for NPR

Even though Toyota is on track to surpass General Motors as the world's biggest car company, managers aren't necessarily jubilant. Their success does not mean that they've stopped looking for new ways to make production better and more efficient.

The Toyota plant in Georgetown, Ky., is one of the largest auto-assembly plants in North America. To spark more innovation, workers on the assembly line are actively encouraged to come up with new ideas.

Dinesh Vasandani is in engineering at the Georgetown plant. He works with a small robotic vehicle called an AGV, which is used to deliver parts to the assembly line. He says plant workers decided they could build their own robots for far less money than they were paying robot suppliers.

"If we had to buy one from a supplier that is bi-directional, it's about $15,000 to $16,000, so we were able to build this in-house for around $6,000," he says.

The Quiet Tunnel

In addition to the robotic arms, the plant has constructed a special quiet tunnel. The tunnel filters out noise so workers can test-drive cars and listen for squeaks, rattles or loose parts. Every Camry and Avalon built in the plant — a total of more than half a million vehicles — goes through this test.

Dan Sieger, a spokesman for Toyota's North American manufacturing operation, says that from the first day on the job, workers are also encouraged to point out what isn't working.

"Every time you do a project, we want to pat ourselves on the back. We don't spend much time doing that," says Sieger. "What didn't go as well as we wanted, what did go well — it's just the way we do everything in this company."

Formula for Success

That philosophy may account for Toyota's success. Matthew May spent eight years working with Toyota and has written a book called The Elegant Solution, which seeks to define the Toyota formula.

"They look for ways to do things better, rather than just punch the clock," says May. "When you can take a simple procedure — say it's putting a windshield wiper on — and actively come up with ways to do it better, there's something magical about that."

Steven St. Angelo, president of the plant in Georgetown, agrees that it's important for the automaker not to become complacent.

"There's not one secret pill. There's not one secret thing you can do," says St. Angelo. "I think it all boils down to truly believing in the Toyota way and acting upon that."

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