Delphi Corp., the largest U.S. auto parts supplier, said last week it wants its suppliers to adopt lean manufacturing.
Delphi's motives are fine. But the company must do more than issue an order from on high. To make Toyota-style manufacturing work, Delphi must do what Toyota does: establish a partnership with its suppliers.
Lean manufacturing is a rigorous drill to cut costs and improve quality. Manufacturers reduce inventory, track quality closely with statistics and listen carefully to employees' suggestions.
The process is not easy. It requires significant cultural change at the companies. Management must be willing to listen and learn. Workers must be educated and empowered. Union leaders must be partners in the process.
To ensure that its suppliers understand and benefit from the system, Toyota sends teams of its own manufacturing experts. Toyota engineers get their hands dirty on suppliers' manufacturing lines, offering suggestions and improving methods.
And they stay until the supplier understands. Toyota shares the pain and the gain of a long-term partnership with its suppliers. The results are impressive. The company's quality is tops, and it is widely admired as the best-run auto company in the world.
Ford Motor Co. is taking steps in the same direction. The company, which is struggling with high costs and uneven quality, increased the number of its engineers working with suppliers from 300 to 1,000. General Motors has a similar program under way with about 400 engineers.
Delphi is off to a good start with its suppliers. It hired Dave Nelson, a former top purchasing executive at Honda in North America, to manage the effort. At Honda, Nelson ran a supplier development program that helped Honda's American suppliers learn Japanese practices.
Delphi, or any auto company or supplier that wants to reap the benefits of the Toyota Production System, must go all the way. True partnership is not a part-time job.