By Graham Earnshaw, Reuters
TOYOTA CITY, Japan, July 24, Reuter – The advance guard of Americans chosen to run [Toyota]’s first factory in the United States have begun their training in the “Toyota way”, and already they talk of it in tones verging on reverence.
Toyota, Japan’s biggest motor manufacturer, is the last major Japanese vehicle maker to set up a plant in the United States, but the company seems determined to get it right at its factory being built in Georgetown, Kentucky.
That means first finding American managers and workers who will accept the Toyota commitment to quality which has made it so phenomenally successful in the past 20 years, say company officials.
To avoid the problem of what they call the “adversarial attitude” of many American car workers, almost all the people being hired for the 800-million-dollar Kentucky plant are new to the industry.
“They really seem to care about people here,” said Kevin Dobyns, 33, from Russell, Kentucky, a former radio disc jockey and civil servant who was unemployed before getting the Toyota job in June.
“In Toyota, they talk of a search for a better way. That’s the story of my life for the past 10 years and I think I’ve found it.”
Dobyns is one of 26 trainees brought to Japan in early July for four weeks’ immersion in the Toyota way of life, centred on this town in central Japan which is ringed by Toyota plants and paddy fields.
Gary Henderson from Louisville in Kentucky, is going to be a Group Leader in charge of chassis assembly when the Kentucky plant starts churning out an annual 200,000 sedans sometime next year.
At present he is in Toyota City, ducking under cars as they swing past on the assembly line, putting in exhaust pipes and tightening transmission cables under the watchful eye of a Japanese trainer.
“Americans tend to be taller than Japanese,” said an official pointing at Henderson. “In Kentucky, the assembly line will be higher.”
Henderson said he was impressed by the enthusiasm of the Japanese workers and the high degree of organisation compared with American factories.
“Everyone has a job to do and everyone does his job,” he told Reuters. “The U.S. is kind of different. The phrase is: ‘Not in my job description’.”
“They have a fanatical belief in quality,” said David Chenault from Mt Sterling, Kentucky, also unemployed until June in spite of his master’s degree in electronics.
“Each worker is an inspector and the next worker is the next customer. That’s the philosophy here,” he added.
But will Toyota be able to get the same standards from American workers in Kentucky?
“I think it can be done,” said 38-year-old Chenault. “They are being being very selective in their hiring. I have no doubt that we will produce cars of as high a quality in Kentucky as they do here.”
The first batch of trainees seem to have been deeply affected by their experience in Toyota City, where super-efficient factories produce more than three million cars a year.
Toyota hopes the trainees will be able to pass their enthusiasm on to the Kentucky plant’s 3,000 workers, being chosen at the moment from among nearly 100,000 applicants.
Company officials recognise that the Toyota spirit cannot be transferred wholesale to the United States. But they are clearly concerned that American workers do not allow their individualism to affect the uniformity of the product.
“There is a cultural difference,” said Kaneyoshi Kusunoki, president of Toyota’s U.S. subsidiary.
“I’m not saying which is better, but in the U.S. there is the concept of the individual and in Japan the concept of the team. But when a customer buys a car, he is not concerned with who made it.”
The American trainees see little chance of making workers in Kentucky commit themselves to the company to the same extent as their Japanese colleagues.
“These people are so dedicated, so loyal. Sometimes, I think they live for Toyota,” said Joann (repeat Joann) Cox, 25, from Lexington, Kentucky, who will be in charge of checking the quality of parts received by the factory.
“From the experience I’ve had in the United States, I don’t know if people are going to be that way.”
Chenault agreed. “The Japanese workers do everything together, but Americans are more independent,” he said. “On the weekend, an American is his own person, but here a Toyota worker is still a Toyota worker.”