Even after 15 years of operation, Toyota Motor Corp.'s Georgetown, Ky., car plant seems like a youngster.
Georgetown usually tops or nearly tops J.D Power and Associates' rankings of the highest quality auto plants of North America. So when Toyota began overhauling the rural Kentucky operation two years ago, it begged the question: Why mess with a good thing?
"We were due for an update," explains Barry Sharpe, Georgetown's manager of paint engineering.
Toyota is tearing out the paint systems that have helped it reach industry benchmark levels for the past 15 years and installing new application systems.
"The thing that was scaring us the most was keeping the system running," says Sharpe, dressed in a jumpsuit, cloth cap and safety glasses as Camry sedans pass behind him in a glass booth. "It was getting harder and harder to get replacement parts for our equipment. The manufacturers weren't carrying the parts anymore."
Georgetown's work force still is young and efficient, and its production methods are relatively new. But the factory isn't getting any younger. It was designed in 1986, tooled up in 1987 and opened in 1988.
Still, Toyota managers are proud that things change slowly at the Japanese automaker. And the rules of Toyota operations - a codified book of practices called the Toyota Production System - are maintained no matter what goes on in the factory.
Toyota has never tried to be the most technologically advanced automaker. Instead, it has been content to focus its resources on planning, training and quality controls. But there is an uneasy feeling at Toyota that the industry is gaining on it.