GREER, S.C. - You can tell something has changed at BMW the minute you walk into its assembly plant.
When the plant opened in 1994 outside Spartanburg, S.C., BMW cloaked itself in Japanese manufacturing culture.
Managers and workers wore look-alike plain white uniforms seemingly fresh out of Honda's closet. The central office was a big, Japanese-style open room, where the president of the company - himself recruited from Honda - was always in earshot.
A half-decade and a management shake-up later, BMW's U.S. factory is leaning toward a different message: 'We're BMW and proud of it.'
'BMW is a brand that appeals to the customer's individuality,' says Norbert Reithofer, president of the BMW Manufacturing Corp. subsidiary. 'We build our cars with a great degree of differentiation. So why should we project an image of sameness by all wearing the same white uniform?'
He makes his point wearing a black BMW polo shirt, one of 14 possible variations of the company's new wardrobe. Next to him, a company vice president is wearing a dressier button-down BMW shirt.
The president is having lunch in a private conference room off of his private office, constructed last year. 'This is much more efficient for having a quick lunch when we have guests,' he says of the conference room.
And of the suite of private offices for company managers, down the hall from that big Japanese open space: 'I make it a point to be out in the factory several times a day,' says the 43-year-old president. 'But there are times when it's necessary to have privacy. There are discussions that are not meant for everyone.'
It is heresy, of course. The Japanese auto industry taught the world that lean production was the boon companion of uniformity. Glitch-free carmaking, said the Japanese, required executives and workers to see themselves as one big team of equal partners pitching in on one another's jobs.
Japanese-style lean manufacturing practices are still as common as ever in the South Carolina factory. But the rest of it? BMW is not so sure.
The changes were triggered by BMW's plans for two new models. The Z3, which took BMW 39 months to develop in the mid-1990s, was scheduled for a facelift involving 1,600 part changes. Moreover, the plant had to prepare for production of the all-new X5 sport activity vehicle, which had three times as many parts as the Z3.
To add further pressure, BMW wanted to make the X5 its new benchmark for product development, bringing the car to the assembly line in just 35 months.
'Time was very critical on this project,' says Ulli Kranz, the local project manager for the X5. 'To meet our goals we had to find new ways to be more efficient.'
Faced with the crush of new products, Reithofer concluded that the relatively small U.S. operation needed a cultural revolution. To achieve that, the automaker looked not to a Japanese factory model or technology, but to BMW's own homegrown solutions.
That triggered big changes. Perhaps the biggest: The automaker created the X5 in virtual reality, using a CATIA computer-aided design and manufacturing system. The vehicle's design, tooling, robotics and assembly line all were worked out on computer in Germany as the factory's cement floor was being extended in Greer.
'This was our first digital car,' says Dieter Lauterwasser, vice president for painted body.
Behind him, small groups of robots weld an X5 as a handful of BMW workers cluster around them. The tooling arrived from Germany only last October. Its software was downloaded from the CATIA system almost instantly. Small tweaks were made locally, then uploaded by disc back into the main program in Munich.
'Three years ago this technology wasn't available,' Lauterwasser says. 'It changes everything we're doing.'
A DIFFERENT LAYOUT
It also changed the look of the body shop. Instead of welding robots lined up from one side of the plant to the other, the automation is grouped in small, movable clusters.
The layout is pure BMW. The tooling is out of the bowels of Germany. Germany's Nothelfer GmbH, a unit of Thyssen, supplied the X5's entire body line.
'This wasn't a cost issue for us,' Lauterwasser says, gesturing toward the sea of robots. 'The cost of doing it this way was actually greater. The issue for us is quality.'
A decade ago, BMW and Europe's other automakers hungered for insight from the sleek Japanese industry. Mercedes-Benz and Porsche took cues from Toyota. Volkswagen modeled its $1 billion Mexican plant on Japanese production concepts.
Reithofer himself, a college lecturer in mechanical engineering until he joined BMW in 1987, says he also yearned for Japanese industry enlightenment. In 1989 he became part of BMW's 'Japan Team,' a group of mostly under-35 managers who traveled overseas looking for Japanese inspiration. Reithofer visited the U.S. factories of Mitsubishi and Toyota, taking notes on parts handling and kaizen, or continual-improvement practices.
'As a young man, seeing these plants, I thought they did everything right and we did everything wrong,' Reithofer says.
The South Carolina plant borrowed heavily from those ideas. The plant was launched under Al Kinzer, the senior American executive at Honda's four Ohio plant start-ups. Kinzer brought with him managers from Honda, Toyota and other Japanese companies.
But when Kinzer retired in early 1998, the BMW plant was on the verge of its new mission. As his replacement, Reithofer asked for changes.
This year he ordered executives to delegate more. Rather than involving themselves with day-to-day operations - the hallmark of a Japanese manager - they would hand off decision-making to middle managers. That would free senior-level managers to focus on longer-range issues.
'People were coming to me to make a decision on what sort of screw to use,' Reithofer says. 'That's not my role. How can we look into the strategic long-range planning for this company if we are consumed with small issues?'
Now one young manager, Richard Morris, is responsible for the plant's Z3 production line. 'We trust him to know that business,' the president says.
Reithofer also wasted no time throwing out one of the most coveted of Japanese transplant traditions: no reserved parking. At Honda or Toyota or, until recently, BMW, the first plant employee to arrive in the morning got the best parking space. If the president arrived late, he got the worst.
'It didn't make sense when we are faced with a very critical project,' Reithofer says. 'What if you were a manager working here very late, and you arrived the next morning for an important 9: 00 meeting? You would spend 15 minutes looking for a parking space, and then perhaps 15 minutes more walking into the plant. It was a bad use of time.'
Future efficiency experts may have trouble gauging the importance of BMW's parking lot, but Reithofer did get results. When the first X5 rolled off the line 35 months after the project's launch, it represented the fastest vehicle development ever achieved by the German company.
It brought with it a new level of maturity for the South Carolina plant. The Greer operation now has an engineering analysis center capable of working with local suppliers.
It has an expanded North American purchasing operation, with a mission of supporting BMW worldwide. And it has a new management structure that is focused on future opportunities.
'We want to be more BMW here,' Reithofer says. 'We think we have a lot of strengths of our own.'