LEXINGTON, Ky. - At the Toyota Supplier Support Center, a school for parts makers eager to learn the automaker's lean production methods, top managers get special attention.
But that's not because they are more important than anyone else. Rather, Toyota understands that senior managers often resist the radical changes in attitude and philosophy needed to successfully shift to the Toyota Production System.
So instructors at the support center, which has brought more than 60 suppliers through its training sessions since 1992, often take top managers aside for special counseling. Supplier executives are taught that the revolution in manufacturing is happening down in the plants, not in their offices.
The focus of the Toyota Production System is on the factory floor because that is where the main value-added activity in building cars and trucks takes place, said Teruyuki Minoura, executive vice president for Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America Inc.
He spoke at an all-day program on lean manufacturing at a meeting of the Society of Automotive Analysts here last week.
'The shop floor is alive and constantly changing,' Minoura said. 'The shop floor is a window to our entire organization.'
The Toyota Production System can be learned 'wherever there are organizations that are able to teach it,' said Kent Bowen, a Harvard University professor who has studied the automaker's manufacturing methods. But the system won't work if it is perceived as something that can be 'acquired and installed' without a total transformation, he said.
If a company is having problems implementing the Toyota Production System, it is probably because senior managers are reluctant to give up the kind of power and perquisites they had under the old way of doing business. Under Toyota's system, hourly workers are much more involved in shop floor decision making and even the flow of work through the plant.
The program included a discussion of the Toyota Production System as it is practiced at the automaker's plant in Georgetown, Ky., and at New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., a Fremont, Calif., joint venture of Toyota and General Motors.
Speakers from GM, Ford Motor Co. and Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. also described their efforts to improve plant efficiency.
At GM and Ford, any effort to adopt lean manufacturing, with its requirement for flexible work assignments on the factory floor, will need the support of the UAW.
For the last eight months, Tom La Sorda has been directing a staff of about 100 people at GM who are putting a new lean production system in place. As the executive in charge of the North American Operations competitive manufacturing office, La Sorda must find a way to do more with less. But the UAW has been pushing the automaker to hire more hourly workers.
'Our biggest challenge is our relationship with our unions and our people,' La Sorda said. 'We know we have too many people, and the union wants to add people. So we have to find a common ground so both sides can win.'