What's Driving Toyota?
September 5, 2006
In the heart of Kentucky, amid rolling bluegrass hills and miles of neat white plank fences, sits the
machine that threatens the three pillars of Detroit.
Under the roof of Toyota Motor's largest manufacturing facility in North America, the headlights flash
and the horn blasts on a new Camry, Avalon or Solara rolling off the assembly line every 55 seconds.
Its journey began just 20 hours earlier, when sheets were cut from a 24-ton coil of steel and stamped by
giant machines into body parts. Robots weld the stamped parts into the naked frame of car bodies,
which are then hung on an overhead conveyor system to begin a Disney-like ride through 7.5 million
square feet of factory floor (the equivalent of 156 football fields).
Employees—some 7,000 at this plant alone—have exactly 55 seconds to install engine components,
brakes, dashboards, windows, doors or some other piece of the car puzzle before it is transported to the
next stage of the assembly line on the overhead conveyor. Driverless carts ferry parts just-in-time to
assembly stations so inventory doesn't pile up, and everywhere, overhead signs, plasma screens and
musical jingles alert team leaders to production status or problems on the assembly line.
In the wake of recalls and other quality issues, the company last month said that it was looking at
possibly delaying some models. Still, what Toyota has accomplished over the years has been widely
admired by manufacturing and information-technology experts.
In factories around the globe, from Toyota City, Japan, to this one in Georgetown, Ky., Toyota
consistently produces higher-quality cars, with fewer worker-hours, lower inventory and fewer defects,
than any other competitor. The engine behind its success, say insiders and outsiders alike, is the Toyota
Production System (TPS), a set of principles, philosophies and business processes to enable the leanest
And behind TPS is information technology—supporting and enabling the business processes that help
Toyota eliminate waste, operate with virtually no inventory and continually improve production.
Technology does not drive business processes at Toyota. The Toyota Production System does.
However, technology plays a critical role by supporting, enabling and bringing to life on a mass scale
the processes derived by adhering to TPS.
"What strikes me about Toyota is, if you were to ask them if they have a technology strategy, they
would probably say no, we have a business strategy," says Philip Evans, a senior vice president at the
Boston Consulting Group who has studied Toyota. "They have a very clear understanding of the role
technology plays in supporting the business."
Every organization strives to make its business processes more effective, more efficient and more
capable of adapting to an ever-changing environment. In fact, business process management (BPM)
was the top business priority expressed by companies in research firm Gartner's ranking of business