One of the most revolutionary new pieces of technology introduced by the overseas automakers since the 1980s was also one of the simplest: the andon cord. Any worker can pull it to stop an assembly line in the event of a manufacturing problem.
The device illustrates the way Japanese automakers looked at their workers differently than the US carmakers did. When investing in the USA, the Japanese built greenfield factories with fresh workers and human-based technologies. US automakers may have overtaken the Japanese in some areas, but Japanese plants are still ahead when it comes to utilizing human resources.
The production system
Toyota's North American factories are now regarded as industry benchmarks for their manufacturing elegance, consistency and sophistication. But it is not because of any tools or equipment they produce. It is because of what the company calls the Toyota Production System.
The Toyota Production System essentially is a rule book of steps and philosophies followed by factory managers and employees. It governs how parts are delivered to the assembly line, how employees move about their jobs, and how quality is maintained.
Other automakers, including BMW, GM, Chrysler and Mitsubishi, have similar systems. Many were inspired by the Toyota plan.
Robots take the back seat
Heavy reliance on automation is not the backbone of any Japanese automaker. When Toyota joined General Motors in 1984 to create the New United Motor Manufacturing plant in California, it stunned GM executives with its lack of advanced automation. Instead the focus was first on learning how to run a factory, and then looking at areas that could be automated. Many American manufacturing executives have come to believe that the important rules are common sense: elimination of waste, continuous improvement and the flow of materials.
Honda says its approach is founded on being conservative. It has little automation in its Ohio operations, and it tries to fully use the knowledge, experience and energy of each of its employees in making improvements.
'I've got 5,000 engineers here,' says Neil Vining, Honda's chief engineer. 'They cannot be replaced with robots of any kind.'
American managers at Toyota's Kentucky plant have learned how to optimize their workforce with continuous training, a strong dose of democracy and listening to employees' ideas. Last year, Toyota employees submitted more than 94,000 suggestions, 99 percent of which were implemented, according to Peggy Ferriss, assistant manager of assembly. The workers earned $3 million in bonuses.
The Japanese never tried to conceal their philosophies from their American rivals. They believed that allowing engineers from GM, Ford or Chrysler to see their new factories in action would increase overall competitiveness.
American industry has by now developed enough understanding of the Japanese approach that parts of it are second nature.
GM has made strides in bringing a production system to its plants. Ford takes best-practice examples from single sites and introduces them worldwide. Chrysler believes it is ahead of everyone with its advances in virtual manufacturing. Chrysler can move and shape data seamlessly from design brief to final inspection at the factory.
Frank Ewasyshyn, Chrysler's vice president of advanced manufacturing, claims die-making time has dropped from months to days. Chrysler involves its suppliers from the very beginning, as though they worked for the same company.
American automakers have come to the same conclusions now as their overseas competitors about how to approach automotive production.