It may have been the most valuable plant tour of all time, those three months in early 1950 that Eiji Toyoda spent crawling over every square inch of the Ford Rouge complex in Dearborn, Mich.
For 40 years, the world's auto elite, including Andres Citroen, Louis Renault, Giovanni Agnelli and Pinin Farina, beat a path to Henry Ford's famous factory. But that extended visit by Toyoda, who died last week at 100, is said to have been the last such pilgrimage -- and the most thorough.
The 36-year-old engineer was sent by the U.S. Army, which then was occupying Japan, to learn about mass production from Ford. The Army needed Toyota to build trucks for U.S. troops in Korea. But Eiji also was looking for ways to help his troubled family-controlled auto company survive in the postwar world. He wrote back to headquarters that he "thought there were some possibilities to improve the production system."
Along with manufacturing whiz Taiichi Ohno, Eiji developed the lean Toyota Production System over the next 20 years, and in the process created the modern Toyota juggernaut.
When Eiji toasted Ford CEO Phil Caldwell at a dinner in 1982, the Toyota president referred to his company's rapid rise to world-class status.
"There is no secret to how we learned to do what we do, Mr. Caldwell," Toyoda told his Ford counterpart. "We learned it at the Rouge."