For Toyota in 1983, the question wasn't whether to build cars in America. The question was how.
How can a system as delicate, precise and intuitively managed as the Toyota Production System be uprooted from Japan and replicated in the rowdy business culture of the United States?
Toyota had tiptoed into U.S. manufacturing with a small truck bed plant near Los Angeles in the 1970s. But now Toyota knew the time had come to mass produce complete vehicles in the United States.
Japan's biggest automaker was starting to look bad. In the face of economic recession in the United States, widespread U.S. plant closings, auto worker layoffs and public anger, the Reagan administration was pressing Japan's government to restrain vehicle exports to the United States in the early 1980s.
Japanese government and trade officials, in turn, were asking their automakers to consider building auto assembly plants in the United States. Upstart Honda Motor Co. was the first to oblige in 1980. Nissan Motor Co. followed suit with a construction plan a year later.
But mighty Toyota appeared to sit idly by, oblivious to the brewing political crisis.
But it was not a time of obliviousness for Toyota management. It was a time of enormous contemplation.
"We didn't know how to make it all work," says Nate Furuta, who would be the first Japanese manager sent to the United States to open what would be Toyota's first U.S. auto plant — New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. — in Fremont, Calif. "How do you make the Toyota Production System work outside of Japan? For us, it was a very big question. Very big."