What are Toyota's idled U.S. workers doing? You might be surprised

GEORGETOWN, Ky. — For the past week, Toyota's leaders have wrestled with the fallout from an unprecedented recall of 4.5 million vehicles that will likely cost the automaker $2 billion in repairs and lost sales. Here at the company's largest North American plant, the workers who assemble two of those recalled models are thinking more than ever about quality.

It's meant a new routine for about 2,500 of the 7,000 Toyota workers in Georgetown. Gone is the hum of one of the plant's lines, idled after the Camry and Avalon models it produces were recalled for "sticky" gas pedals provided by a supplier.

Workers affected by the idling had the option of taking paid vacation or unpaid leave, but the vast majority came to work, with many taking training sessions, cleaning assembly line stations or applying new coats of paint. But it's also been a time for the plant's more than 200 "quality circles" to meet and find ways to solve assembly problems, searching for sometimes elusive answers to Toyota's quest for better efficiency and lower costs.

"Everybody is concerned" about the recalls, quality circle leader Renee Brown said. "Every team member out there wants to do whatever they can to make it better. They don't like it. It makes you refocus."

Each circle, a program done globally at Toyota plants, consists of seven to eight employees across the plant who volunteer to focus on a particular issue. When the assembly lines are running, the circles meet after work or during break times.

"Sometimes it's tough to work on the processes while the line is up, so this is an opportune time this week to go to the process and make some modifications while the line is down," said Nancy Corey, quality circle administrator in Georgetown.

On Friday, among the teams meeting were one examining how to make faster and less expensive repairs to tools and another looking to recycle a supplier's velcro ties.

"Some things seem very small but they have a big impact," Corey said.

In a break room, quality circle leader Tony Smith led a discussion of seven employees, all looking to find how pulse guns used on the assembly line can be damaged less and when broken, be repaired on site.

As quality assurance network employee Jeff Sandlin showed, assembly line workers are accidentally yanking out the cables on the guns.

The group has spread the word about the damage and just by doing so, the number of damaged guns has decreased to 18 from 27 in a seven-month period. But they're also looking for ways to save up to 50 percent on the costs of repair by doing them in-house rather than shipping the guns back to the supplier, which takes two to six months to repair them.

The meeting finished inside of a half-hour with the goal of getting more input from employees and monitoring their work. Their hope: Finish the plan in two weeks and present it to managers.

In another break room, six workers gathered with recycling in mind. For years, the velcro ties that a supplier uses in shipping to hold together Camry parts have been trashed. But having the supplier reuse them could save Toyota $40,000 a year and also be healthier for the environment.

This group's mission is to find a way to make sure it's not a burden to the supplier to receive the used ones and then reuse them. The supplier needs the ties shipped back in precisely numbered groups of either 252 or 504, the numbers they use per shift or in a day, said Brown, the quality circle leader. But the group also needs to make sure it's easy for Toyota workers to package them to be sent.

Jeff Trowbridge, who works in assembly, suggested either compressing and measuring them, weighing them or "do it the hard way and count them." Within minutes, Brown and colleagues Richard Mullins, Chris Decker, Steve Colvin and Loyd Crowder were suggesting ways to make the counter an easy addition. As the group broke, Brown pledged to talk the idea over with others and report back at their next meeting, on Tuesday.

Brown and Turley said afterward that the quality circles this week have been an example of workers refocusing on quality.

"It's not that the quality isn't there, but it's a refocus and it's a good reminder of why we have so many control items and quality checks throughout the plant," Turley said.

"We're all proud of what we do, and we want to continue," added Brown. "We don't feel we've been here twenty-something years just for this to knock us down, because it's not."

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