TIJUANA, Mexico -- When Toyota announced plans last year to build a factory in central Mexico for the next-generation Corolla, some big news outlets suggested it would be the company's first assembly site south of the border.
Executives at Toyota's Tacoma pickup plant in Tijuana were somewhat surprised. Not only was that factory adding a third shift and hitting record production, it was the plant that helped pave the way for the new one in the central state of Guanajuato, which breaks ground later this year.
"We've been in Mexico since 2004, and we've studied Mexico deeply," said Mike Bafan, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Baja California and Guanajuato. "It taught us things we should focus on more."
The experience in Tijuana -- which started producing pickup beds but evolved into a midsize assembly plant over a decade -- gave the company "a good level of comfort" going into Guanajuato, said Bafan, and better prepared it for managing "human capital."
The Baja plant is laying the groundwork for operations in Guanajuato by training its future workers and providing technical expertise.
"In our case, this little engine that could is also a mother plant," said Bafan, meaning it has a formal commitment to help bring the new, much bigger plant online.
Francisco Garcia, vice president of manufacturing for Toyota Baja, said that despite his plant's simplicity, compared with what is planned for Guanajuato, it is actually an ideal training ground for the fundamentals of car-building and the vaunted Toyota Production System.
"It's a laboratory," said Garcia. "Here we can teach TPS because it's not automated."
Garica pointed out the key elements of that system as he walked around the factory. Workers learn visual skills to identify abnormalities. They are taught to remain focused on the task at hand and never pass on a defect to the next person on the line.
"Because of the line's small space, each team member needs to learn three times or four times more elements than on a standard line," said Garcia.
A lack of automation also forces line workers to learn other TPS fundamentals, such as "poka-yoke," devices or steps in the manufacturing process to prevent errors and defects, and "kaizen," or continuous improvement.
"Our team members are much better than robots at simple skills," said Garcia. "A robot cannot do kaizen."