Flexible tooling. Standard work boards. Visual controls. Andon systems. A focus on “the seven deadly wastes.” Problem-solving. Empowerment. Work teams. Job rotation.

Components of a Toyota plant? Yes, but the same can now be said of Chrysler.

The No. 3 U.S. automaker unveiled massive structural and cultural changes – and, a new car model – on Feb. 1 at its plant in Belvidere,

Ill., 75 miles north of Chicago.

The 2007 Dodge Caliber, a bold replacement for the cutesy Neon compact, is being built on a production system the company has dubbed “Smart Manufacturing.” The concept – steeped heavily in Toyota-esque principles, jargon and improvement tools – is a huge break from tradition, even for a company seen as the most progressive of the Big Three American automakers.

“This plant shows that we are implementing innovative solutions to compete in this fiercely competitive global market,” Chrysler Group president and CEO Tom LaSorda said during a celebration that showcased the $419 million Belvidere makeover.

One such Smart Manufacturing solution was mechanical. Belvidere is the first Chrysler plant to use a body shop comprised entirely of robotics and free of vehicle-specific tooling. The 780 new robots make

necessary tool changes automatically, within a 45-second cycle time, giving the plant the flexibility to build the Caliber and three other

models with no negative impact on production. This process allows the company to vary production, better meet customer preferences, and make a simple, cost-efficient changeover to next-generation models.

 

Perhaps even bigger solutions relate to the workforce and culture. Corporate and plant leaders came to terms with the United Auto Workers on a plan to ease job classification restrictions and create a work structure based on teams. The previous environment was rigid and limited workers to specific duties. Today, the plant’s 2,650 workers (1,000 second-shift workers were added March 20) are grouped in teams of six. Team members rotate between jobs and troubleshoot problems as they occur.

“It makes it easier on the body and it utilizes everyone’s potential,” said team leader Alan Schwandt. “You’re not limited to one particular job all day, and that’s where the quality comes in.”

Not every union member has endorsed the new work structure, but it does have the firm backing of UAW leadership.

“Changes are coming,” said UAW vice president Nate Gooden, who oversees the union’s Chrysler department. “We have to embrace change. We can’t live in the past anymore. DaimlerChrysler is doing things differently to stay competitive.”

 

The culture change isn’t confined to union workers. Plant manager Kurt Kavajecz says his interaction and involvement on the shop floor has greatly increased.

“My focus is more on what I can do from a leadership standpoint to support team members building a car,” he said. “One way my job has changed is I now spend an hour a day on the floor doing nothing but reviewing team boards with team leaders and team members.”

In these meetings, they discuss solutions to emerging maintenance, quality, product, safety and material issues.

“We have to listen to our people,” said Frank Ewasyshyn, the Chrysler Group’s executive VP of manufacturing. “We have very talented people here. We need to tap into that creativity and knowledge.”

Flexibility, creativity, new jobs. Is Chrysler out to be a Toyota-caliber company?

“I’m tired of chasing damn Toyota,” said Gooden. “Let Toyota start chasing us.”