Someone soon will be shadowing Mike DaPrile, senior vice president of manufacturing at Toyota's car and van plant in Georgetown, Ky.
A Chrysler Corp. manufacturing chief will go where DaPrile goes, see what DaPrile sees, slip into DaPrile's business meetings and follow him to lunch. Other Chrysler managers will be shadowing DaPrile's department managers. Then, after two days of reconnaissance, the Chrysler team will report home to Detroit.
'I've never had one these tours where I didn't learn something that I'm screwed up on,' says the Toyota factory boss, who is currently planning the Chrysler visit.
You're wondering who's watching whom. The answer: everyone.
Toyota Motor Corp. decided 10 years ago to throw open its doors and books to the competition. Even as Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Chrysler secretly longed to rub out the North American newcomer, Toyota opted to bring the competitors into its new U.S. house and tell them anything - virtually anything - they sought to know.
It would help Toyota in the long run, its Japanese executives speculated. And, added their U.S. executives, it would also probably help the American auto industry.
HELPED IN SIENNA LAUNCH
The most tangible payoff came last year when Toyota launched its Sienna minivan. It was the first minivan ever built by Toyota (the Previa was outsourced from a Japanese affiliate), and its production was made possible by Chrysler.
'Chrysler helped us tremendously in building the van,' says DaPrile, who was a General Motors final assembly manager before coming to Toyota in 1987. 'We knew nothing about building a van. Denny and his people really bent over backwards to send us to different van plants to look at jigs and fixtures, and told us all about the problems they had in startup with the van.'
'Denny' is Dennis Pawley, vice president of manufacturing for Toyota's closest U.S. competitor, Chrysler. Over the past half decade, Pawley and DaPrile have become close colleagues in a strange quest to clobber each other in the marketplace by sharing ideas and innovations in the factory.
Chrysler allowed Toyota managers to swarm over its van operations to learn how to build a minivan. Chrysler managers are still taking notes on Toyota's lean production methods, and even on Toyota's accomplishment of being the first North American auto plant to build sedans and minivans one after the other on the same assembly line. General Motors has been taking a peek at that, too.
Pawley has called DaPrile on the phone to alert him to new production equipment installed in Canada that automatically sands soldering points. Toyota has allowed busloads of managers from GM, Ford and Chrysler to tour the Georgetown auto plant and analyze its performance. GM has reciprocated by taking Toyota managers on tours of its operations in Europe. Chrysler has also shared some of its gains on factory ergonomics - the science of making strenuous and repetitive body motions less stressful to workers.
GM worked with Toyota's operations when it decided to get into the business of exporting U.S.-made Cavaliers to Japan. GM, which has never relied much on exporting since it has plants around the world, was unaccustomed to mass-producing both right-hand-drive and left-hand-drive models on the same assembly line, or even at the same plant. Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. in Marysville, Ohio, had mastered the practice in the 1980s. Toyota had also perfected it.
GM and the Georgetown plant first put their quality departments together to examine export issues. Then the sometimes-partners put their manufacturing people to work observing details of physically producing right- and left-hand drives.
'Plant managers from Ford and GM call me all the time,' DaPrile says. 'It's healthy. A lot of people don't know this. They think we hate each other and we're out to kill each other. It isn't that way.'
AN ART FORM NOW
DaPrile notes that Toyota itself couldn't get its act together as an automaker until executives traveled to Dearborn, Mich., to study at the feet of Ford.
In fact, auto plant visits have now become something of an art form. Consumers have for years pulled off the highway in Bowling Green, Ky., to take a walking tour of GM's Corvette factory there. Tour groups as diverse as schoolchildren and electronics engineers have come by the thousands through Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp. U.S.A. in Smyrna, Tenn.; Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing America in Normal, Ill.; and the Georgetown operation.
In 1994, BMW Manufacturing added a 'zentrum,' a combination theater and showroom, to its Spartanburg, S.C., factory to handle thousands of visitors there. GM's Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., also now maintains a visitors' center to accommodate the curious. Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. in Vance, Ala., operates a showplace visitors' center.
Automotive guests at Toyota's Georgetown plant typically begin their visits in the visitors' center the automaker built in 1994. With between 1,500 and 4,000 tour groups a year coming to the plant for various reasons, the center often becomes a conference area where manufacturing ideas are shared.
Meanwhile, DaPrile says Toyota is on the hunt for more assistance with ergonomics in the workplace. That includes calls to Mercedes-Benz, which operates an assembly line that flips cars upside down so that workers don't have to reach overhead. Pawley has shown Georgetown managers Chrysler operations where workers have a minimal amount of bending and climbing to take care of assembly work inside vehicles on the assembly line.
'We want to learn more about ergonomics and how to stop our people from climbing inside of cars,' he says. 'Other people are really making strides in that, and we want to learn from them.'