Even before their planned merger, Daimler-Benz AG and Chrysler Corp. were drawing closer. Each was studying a Japanese-influenced rule book for manufacturing.
For evidence, look at Curitiba, Brazil, where Chrysler is putting up half of the $500 million investment for a small-car engine plant with another German automaker, BMW AG. BMW is developing the plant on behalf of its Rover Group. Chrysler Chairman Robert Eaton said that partnership will not be affected by last week's merger.
When the Daimler-Chrysler pairing takes hold, Curitiba may become a partnership involving two German rivals. But Curitiba also points to what is happening to the manufacturing culture at Chrysler and Daimler-Benz.
The Brazilian venture, Tritec Motors Ltda., is one of the first projects for the new Chrysler Operating System. That 'system' is actually a new set of rules and philosophies that govern the way Chrysler runs its factories around the world.
The chief architect of the plan is Dennis Pawley, Chrysler executive vice president of manufacturing. Pawley, a former manager at General Motors and at Mazda's plant in Flat Rock, Mich., has said he will dedicate the rest of his career to unfurling the new manufacturing methods.
The kicker: The new Chrysler system is based on Toyota Motor Corp.'s vaunted Toyota Production System. Employees follow efficient steps in doing their jobs. Plants look for small but continual gains in productivity. Employees are encouraged to make suggestions, ranging from the layout of plant machinery to improvements in processes.
'If you were to walk through the finished Curitiba plant, you'd find a little bit of Chrysler and a little bit of BMW,' said Al Kinzer, former president of BMW Manufacturing Corp., who consulted on the Brazilian venture until his retirement this month. 'But for the most part, it's going to look a lot like Toyota's plant in Georgetown, Ky.'
At the same time, Daimler is constructing a new approach to manufacturing that also bears a striking resemblance to Toyota's.
The new MCC Smart car plant in Hambach, France, which Daimler will run in a joint venture with Swiss watchmaker SMH, is a campus-style setting of car assembly and parts operations, suggestive of Toyota's supplier operations in Toyota City, Japan.
Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. opened its Vance, Ala., plant last year under William Taylor, a former North American Toyota executive.
That plant is designed like a Toyota factory. Assembly workers follow specific steps at their jobs, as Toyota's workers do. The production flow is also based on Toyota's kanban system: When a job is completed at one station, a worker signals that he is ready for more parts or material.
'Everybody's getting into this production methodology now,' Taylor said in a March interview with Automotive News. 'Everybody seems to be moving in the same direction now, with similar interests in work standardization and continuous improvement.'