Inside North America's newest assembly plant, Seizo Okamoto is doing a balancing act that should earn him a spot in the circus.
Okamoto has taken on an assignment as president of Toyota Motor Corp.'s 8-month-old Tundra pickup plant in Princeton, Ind.
The factory is using an inexperienced work force to build a product Toyota has never produced before: a full-sized pickup.
Moreover, a largely new management team is running the show. Okamoto intentionally recruited few of Toyota's U.S. managers, on the theory that new managers would reinvigorate Toyota's approach to factory management.
The Tundra has enjoyed a hot market launch, selling faster than any other Toyota product in history. That has forced Princeton to speed production - despite the newness of it all. In July, the plant launched its second work shift a month ahead of schedule. By the second day, the lines already were running ahead of forecasts.
On top of that, Princeton is preparing to launch another all-new U.S. product, an as-yet-unidentified full-sized sport-utility based on the Tundra platform. The expansion for that production is nearly complete, and output will begin next year.
And now, Toyota has indicated it needs more North American production capacity. Princeton is the most likely site for it. On the heels of the Tundra launch, Princeton would have to absorb more workers, more schedules, more meetings and more pressure.
According to Okamoto, the real challenge facing his team is not so much line speed, expansions or new products. It is that mysterious beast, the Toyota Production System. Okamoto is using that system to get the fledgling Princeton plant up to speed.
'I tell everyone who comes to work here that it is my personal commitment to make sure we follow the Toyota Production System,' says Okamoto, a 57-year-old manager who previously served at Toyota's auto plants in Canada and California.
Automakers around the world have been studying the Toyota system for more than a decade. Its rules have been copied to varying degrees by Chrysler, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and hundreds of North American parts makers.
The basic rules require a manufacturer to maintain low parts inventories, make constant improvements (kaizen) to factory practices, follow standardized work procedures and train workers to stop the production line whenever quality is in question.
Perhaps most important, Toyota wants to 'pull' work-in-progress through the system as it is needed, rather than 'pushing' it downstream regardless of market demand.
This is the manufacturing theory that Okamoto instills in new hires as they arrive at Princeton. Most of them have never worked in an auto factory. Most of Princeton's 1,700 employees came from within 50 miles of the small farming community, where cornfields stand 7 feet high. Personnel managers are hiring 800 more workers in the coming months. Should Toyota's brain trust give Princeton the go-ahead to double in size, it could mean 2,000 or so more jobs.
'It's very difficult to introduce TPS after production starts,' Okamoto says. 'Here, we can teach it to every individual without exception.'
Last year, when Okamoto found himself frequently shuttling to Japan, one of his U.S. managers urged him to videotape his training presentation so that they could continue in his absence. Okamoto refused. 'I have to do this in person to make sure they hear me,' he explains.
All new employees report to a classroom where they dive even deeper into the Toyota Production System. In laughable confusion, they assemble trucks out of Lego blocks on a miniature assembly line.
They learn that the miracles of kaizen, teamwork, waste reduction and lean inventories help them to work more efficiently, make fewer mistakes and generate bigger profits.
Once in the factory, the recruits spend weeks practicing their jobs before working on a real Tundra. They spend a week on the assembly line observing and helping but not installing parts or performing actual work.
Then they spend two weeks off the line, installing components on a mock vehicle. Then comes another week back on the line, installing parts on a training buck that moves down the assembly line between actual production vehicles.
Even after months on the job, team leaders move from spot to spot helping employees perfect their work.
The payoff, according to Princeton Production Manager Norm Bafunno, is that the ramp-up is going better than predicted - and therefore, the plant is building more trucks.
'We're not keeping up with sales,' Bafunno says. 'But the important thing is for us to keep focused on doing things right. If we keep our eyes on quality, the rest will take care of itself.'
As he walks through the bustling plant, Bafunno points out the multicolored overhead display board. 'We haven't shut the line down once all day,' he says. 'That means that we're all doing our job right, and our suppliers are doing theirs right, too.'
To start the Princeton project, Okamoto did something Toyota managers rarely do: He distanced himself from other Toyota operations. He hired only four managers from other Toyota facilities, and he tried to create new rules. But the idea wasn't to embrace something new and different. It was to create a more streamlined organization that would let managers preach Toyota's factory methods more clearly. The actual production of vehicles - especially the Toyota system of producing them - remain the same.
'I think he was a little reluctant even to have somebody from Toyota in my job,' says Tom Suter, Princeton's general manager of administration, who came from Toyota's Georgetown, Ky., operation. 'He didn't want people coming in saying, `This is the way we did it in Georgetown.' '
The Indiana venture eliminated several layers of managerial bureaucracy. Below Okamoto are only one vice president and three general managers. There are only three levels between them and the factory floor. And even there, only two levels exist: team leaders and team members.
Okamoto answers without hesitation when asked what the biggest challenge will be if Toyota asks Princeton to expand further.
'Simple, direct communication,' he says. 'It's a big issue. It's easy to lose that. As we grow and take on more, we must add more people. Directions from management are misunderstood. Information from team managers is lost. We don't want that to happen.'
One way the factory encourages communication is in brief afternoon meetings that bring together groups as large as 40 people to identify the day's glitches.
'It's not a back-slapping session,' Bafunno says. 'We're really looking for problems.'
That, Okamoto adds, is another tenet of his back-to-basics Toyota Production System.'The basic process is to uncover the problem,' he says. 'If you can train people to surface the problem, everything else is really a tool to solving the problem.'