Japanese Automakers, U.S. Suppliers and Supply-Chain Superiority

Many manufacturers today are concerned with the inefficient manufacturing and delivery practices of their company’s suppliers. Before pointing a finger accusingly at their suppliers, however, perhaps they should examine their own policies and procedures. Any manufacturer can learn this lesson from U.S. automakers, their Japanese rivals that have set up operations in the United States and the automotive suppliers that provide parts to both groups. In the 1980s and 1990s, Japanese auto-makers built significant production capacity in the United States, and their world-class manufacturing practices quickly became the new quality standard for the U.S. automotive industry. These practices went well beyond the just-in-time (JIT) delivery of parts to a plant and included all aspects of lean manufacturing. (See “Lean Manufacturing and Just-In-Time Delivery.”) The transplanted Japanese automakers, with their lean focus, realized that their success depended on developing a local supply base, which meant sharing with U.S. suppliers the innovative manufacturing-management practices and technologies that made similar plants so competitive in Japan.1 Some skeptics claimed that lean manufacturing would never work in North America, considering the continent’s size and transportation systems that might not be able to deliver materials reliably just in time. But Japanese companies in the United States seemed to prove otherwise. U.S. automobile manufacturers began following the lead of their Japanese counterparts, transforming themselves in the lean direction and demanding JIT logistics from their suppliers. See sidebar.

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