Later this year, Toyota could overthrow General Motors to become king of the world's automakers by selling more vehicles than the once-mighty American giant.
Analysts say the keys to Toyota’s success aren't just design and reliability, but the culture that exists inside their plants.
The cars may be high-tech at Toyota, but employees like Howard Artrip are expected to find simpler ways to build them.
One idea is using plastic totes to separate parts by the car model, not by the type of part.
“We actually bought these from Wal-Mart down the street," says Artrip.
The Japanese call this kind of thinking "kaizen," or continuous improvement. Toyota has embraced it wholeheartedly, just about everywhere you look at its seven north American assembly plants.
Take motorized carts for example. Toyota used to buy them. But it was discovered that car parts could be used instead, steered by a power-window motor. By building these carts themselves, Toyota has cut its costs in half.
And savings of $3,000 per cart is just a small part of Toyota’s overall good fortune, which continues to elude their American competitors.
“It's not just the Toyota culture,” says AutoWeek Editor and Associate Publisher Dutch Mandel. “It's the Japanese culture that they've brought to corporate America. And they've melded in such a way that takes the benefits of both.”
Those benefits led to record sales last year at Toyota. But don't expect a big party here.
“It's not to say that Toyota doesn't recognize its accomplishments,” said Chad Buckner, a paint shop engineering manager. “But there's a healthy sense of paranoia that that's not enough.”
That's why every worker is empowered to yank the line to a halt if they see a problem.
“In the Toyota system, no problem equals a problem,” said John Robinson, an assembly engineering manager. “So we want to expose problems.”
Problems expose opportunities for solutions, which employees seem eager to find.
“At the end of the day if you see a change, and my job is better, my process has improved, it makes you want to come back,” said Robinson.
Back, that is, to keep Toyota moving forward toward No. 1 in the world.