Someone soon will be shadowing Mike DaPrile, senior vice president of manufacturing at Toyota's car and van plant in Georgetown, Kentucky. A Chrysler manufacturing chief will go where DaPrile goes, see what DaPrile sees, slip into DaPrile's business meetings and follow him to lunch. Other Chrysler managers will be shadowing a couple of DaPrile's department managers. Then, after two days of reconnaissance, the Chrysler team will report home to Detroit.
'I've never had one of these tours where I didn't learn something that I've screwed up on,' says the Toyota factory boss, who is currently planning the Chrysler visit. Everyone, it seems, is watching everyone.
Ten years ago, Toyota decided to throw open its doors and books to the competition. Even though Ford, General Motors and Chrysler secretly longed to eliminate the North American newcomer, Toyota opted to bring the competitors into its new US house and tell them virtually anything they wanted to know. Toyota did this for two reasons: to help its long-term future and to assist the US auto industry.
Helping the Sienna
The most tangible payoff came last year when Toyota launched its Sienna minivan. It was the first minivan ever built by Toyota - the Previa was outsourced from a Japanese affiliate - and its production was made possible by Chrysler.
'Chrysler helped us tremendously in building the van,' says DaPrile, who was a General Motors final assembly manager before coming to Toyota in 1987.
'We knew nothing about building a van. Dennis Pawley, Chrysler's vice president of manufacturing, really bent over backwards to send us to different van plants to look at jigs and fixtures, and told us all about the initial problems they had with the van.'
Over the past five years, Pawley and DaPrile have become close colleagues in a strange quest to dominate each other in the marketplace by sharing ideas and innovations in the factory.
Chrysler allowed Toyota managers to swarm over its van operations. Managers are still taking notes on how Toyota became the first North American auto plant to build sedans and minivans one after the other on the same assembly line. General Motors has been taking a look at that, too.
Among the 4,000 tour groups that visit Toyota's Georgetown plant each year are busloads of managers from GM, Ford and Chrysler.
GM has reciprocated by taking Toyota managers on tours of its operations in Europe. Chrysler has also shared some of its gains on factory ergonomics - the science of making strenuous and repetitive body motions less stressful to workers. GM worked with Toyota's operations when it decided to get into the business of exporting US-made Cavaliers to Japan.
GM, which never relied heavily on exporting since it has plants around the world, was unaccustomed to mass-producing both right- and left-hand-drive models in the same plant, let alone on the same assembly line. Honda of America had mastered the practice in the 1980s. Toyota had also perfected it.
GM and the Georgetown plant first put their quality departments together to examine export issues. Then the two occasional partners put their manufacturing people to work observing the details of physically producing right- and left-hand drives.
'Plant managers from Ford and GM call me all the time,' DaPrile says. 'It's healthy. A lot of people don't know this. They think we hate each other and we're out to kill each other. It isn't that way.
'I don't see anything wrong with all this,' DaPrile says in defense of the cross-pollination that now goes between Ford, GM, Chrysler and international automakers.
'I think it's good. I believe in competition - it makes you stronger.'