RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And U.S. automakers are under pressure, and one of the reasons is competition from Toyota. Toyota has been gaining market share in the U.S. Four of its models are in Consumer Reports' top ten picks for this year. The Japanese automaker is expected to soon take GM's title as the world's largest carmaker.
In our Wednesday look at the workplace, we take you inside a Toyota factory. The company's massive assembly plant in Georgetown, Kentucky is one of the largest workplaces in the country. NPR's Jack Speer traveled to Georgetown to find out what's behind Toyota's success.
JACK SPEER: Once inside Toyota's giant assembly plant, there's an obvious question: just how big is this place?
Mr. RICK HESTERBERG(ph) (Toyota): Seven and a half million square feet is what encompasses these walls here.
SPEER: But how big is that? I don't have my calculator handy.
Mr. HESTERBERG: Equivalent to a 156 football fields under one roof. Kind of put it into perspective for you.
SPEER: That's Toyota's Rick Hesterberg, who talks as he drives a red golf cart through the plant. Another thing you quickly notice here is that there is very little wasted motion.
Mr. HESTERBERG: Those flat pieces of metal are sent over here. That robotic arm takes a pieces, sets it on top of the die and the press comes down on top of it. So the dies are like cookie cutters and these are all making a certain part on this press line. Down here we're making another part. It's all done robotically.
SPEER: Toyota builds Camrys and Avalons here - 500,000 of them a year. There are plenty of things that make this plant different. There are, of course, assembly line workers and managers. But here they work together on teams. And the teams are constantly searching for problems. Flaws in the manufacturing process that could be eliminated.
Sometimes the ideas are big, like coming up with a soundproof tunnel to test for squeaks and rattles or new assembly line procedure. Other times it's just a little idea about reducing costs. Dinesh Vasandani, an engineer, shows off a small robotic vehicle used to deliver parts to the assembly line. He says plant workers here decided they could build the robots themselves for far less money than what they were paying the company that was doing the job.
Mr. DINESH VASANDANI (Engineer): If we had to buy one from a supplier that is bi-directional, it's about 15, 16 thousand dollars. So we were able to build this in-house for around $6,000.
SPEER: There are a lot of people trying to figure out what Toyota is doing right. But spokesman Dan Sieger says workers at the Georgetown plant spend a lot of their time focusing on what's not working.
Mr. DAN SIEGER (Spokesman): One of our many, many things is bad news first. With everything we do, anytime you do a project, we want to pat ourselves on the back. We don't really spend much time doing that. What didn't go as well as we wanted, let's talk about that. And then we can say what did go well. It's just the way we do everything in this company.
SPEER: And people who have studied the automaker say it's that idea of continuous improvement that actually drives the company. Matthew May spent eight years working for Toyota. Now a consultant, he's written a book about the automaker's formula for success called "The Elegant Solution."
Mr. MATTHEW MAY (Former Toyota Employee, Consultant, Author, "The Elegant Solution"): They look for ways to do things better. Rather than just punch the clock, do the work the best they can, they're actively looking for ways to improve it. When you can take a simple procedure - say it's putting a windshield wiper on - and actually come up with ways to do it better, there's something magical about that.
SPEER: But success has created something of a dilemma for the company. Toyota wants to avoid looking like its success is coming at the expense of Detroit's automakers. Steven St. Angelo is the president of the Georgetown, Kentucky plant.
Mr. STEVEN ST. ANGELO (President, Georgetown, Kentucky Plant): As far as General Motors, Daimler Chrysler and Ford, we want all of them to succeed. You know, I'm an American. Everyone here is an American. We want our economy to be strong so we want all our competition to do well. And we think there's plenty of volume out there for everyone to succeed.
SPEER: So there won't be much celebrating in Georgetown if Toyota does surpass GM this year to become the world's largest automakers. St. Angelo says he'll just encourage his teams to think about solving the next big problem and reflect on what they could've done better along the way.
Jack Speer, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: In our business report tomorrow, we talk to the man who helped deliver the U.S. market to Toyota - the president of Toyota North America.