The Big 3 have spent more than a decade studying the lean manufacturing methods of Toyota and Honda and trying to make their assembly lines more efficient.
But it is only within the past few years that the U.S. automakers made big gains in closing the gap with their Japanese competitors.
The difference is that the Big 3 have gone beyond just copying individual techniques, such as andon cords, says Ron Harbour, president of Harbour Consulting in Troy, Mich. The automakers are adopting manufacturing systems that attack waste.
The key to success, Harbour says, is to get to a common system for making decisions and improvements throughout the organization. But for companies as large as the Big 3, that will take years.
"The Toyota Production System really is all about eliminating waste throughout the entire business," Harbour says. "With just one good way to run the business, Toyota can devote its energy to improve and perfect that way."