One Truck A Minute Ford's Kansas City factory builds more vehicles than any other assembly plant in the country. Here's how it gets it done.
By Grainger David

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Dave Savchetz had a normal office job once, but he didn't much like it. Savchetz, 50, has spent most of his life inside automobile factories, and today he is the plant manager at the Ford factory in Kansas City, Mo., one of the largest manufacturing facilities in the world. He grew up in Dearborn, Mich., his father worked for Ford, and he took his first job with the company--night shift, Wayne assembly, decking engines on the 1972 LTD--at age 19. Since then he has worked in just about every kind of factory job you can have: hourly, salaried, general foreman, trim superintendent, even night-shift operations manager--"which can be pretty traumatic if you're young and single," he says.

So when Savchetz got his first "staff assignment" back in 1995--going in to the office every day at Ford's world headquarters in Dearborn, sitting at a conference table, talking strategy--it just didn't seem much like real, actual work. "For the first three months it was like a vacation," he says. "Then it just got--I don't know. I don't want to say I was bored. But it just wasn't my thing."

After almost a year and a half, it was too much. Savchetz likes to tell the story of one soporific meeting in which he got up from the conference table once a minute to make a hash mark on a flip chart. After seven minutes and seven hash marks ("you know, four with the slash and then two more"), someone finally asked him what the hell he was doing.

"I just wanted to keep track of how many trucks we've built since we've been sitting here," he said. "Every minute we sit here, somebody is out there building a truck."

It's easy to forget, isn't it? That somewhere out there, in places we rarely see, someone is building--or sewing or welding or assembling--all the products that we take for granted? Manufacturing isn't much talked about anymore, even though it represents 14% of the GDP and 11% of all employment in the U.S. The country is the world's leading producer of manufactured goods, yet as a topic, that has been shipped to the offshore regions of normal business discussion. Maybe it's too ingrained: Despite the sovereignty of the "service economy," 213 companies on this year's list could be classified as "industrial."

If you've never spent time inside a modern factory, it's hard to imagine what "industrial" means today. The word sounds treacherous, of another era, caked in sooty connotations. But because of astounding leaps in productivity--gains in manufacturing productivity have outstripped those in the overall economy by 50% over the past 30 years--the modern factory is very often a safer, more efficient place, not to mention a wonder to behold: amazing machines, doing various interchangeable tasks in vast, spotless warehouses just off the Interstate.

In the first FORTUNE 500, the list was filled with names that suggested our dependence on the production of basic necessities: Corn Products Refining, International Shoe, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, US Plywood. Fifty years later--with names like Pfizer, Altria, and Starbucks--it is easy to forget that nearly everything still comes from manufacturing, that engine room of the modern world. Think of it this way--you there, in your office, on your corporate campus, or on the coast-to-coast flight looking down on all the factory towns as you pass: If the U.S. manufacturing sector were a nation, it would have the fifth-largest economy in the world, larger than the gross domestic product of France.

For this story, FORTUNE chose Ford's Kansas City plant, the country's largest automobile factory in terms of units. It is also one of the highest-revenue-grossing facilities in America. Last year it churned out 490,000 F-150s, Ford Escapes, and Mazda Tributes, and brought in roughly $13 billion in revenues--enough to place it just outside the top 150 on this year's list, alongside Staples. (There are two assembly lines on the grounds, one for trucks and one for SUVs.) Kansas City is a "flexible" plant, meaning that with just a little tweaking, it can produce any kind of car that Ford makes. Mostly it produces the F-150 pickup truck, which has been the bestselling vehicle of any kind in this country for 22 years. The new model has so many options, including a paint called Screaming Yellow, that there are more than one million possible combinations.

A modern automobile body shop is like a small city of domesticated robots, all trapped in metal cages, spitting sparks. The assembly line weaves a tight, twisted pattern along the ground and overhead, carrying parts--doors, frames, wheelbases--and assembled silver truck-skeletons in various states of completion.

It's surprisingly quiet and clean, and smells faintly of welding. Men and women in clear protective glasses and standard-issue blue coveralls populate the low-lit warehouse. Tradesmen ride by on orange tricycles with rickshaw boxes on the back filled with tools. Mostly the people seem to work as assistants--taking measurements, alerting the system if something goes wrong. It's the robots that steal the show: Huge, white, and jointed, they look like giant, menacing sci-fi birds craning around for food.

Here, Dave Savchetz is in his element. He has a calm, practical manner, a brown moustache, and a brushed-back pompadour haircut. Savchetz has an office at the plant (with a cool automatic door he can open by pushing a button on his desk), but he never spends any time there. The real work is on the floor: Except for a few hours in the early morning and at shift change, the plant puts out vehicles continually, one a minute.

To follow Savchetz around the Kansas City plant is to feel that you are actually inside a flow chart--that the whole 18-acre complex is one giant, car-producing, steam-puffing Excel file. In room after room everything is charts. Printouts cover the walls as well as both sides of rows of freestanding bulletin boards. Columns, bar graphs, color-coded pies: Everything has its own chart, from employee morale to the number of warranty complaints relating to a particular kind of screw.

"We measure about everything around here except how high the grass grows," Savchetz says, chuckling.

The mapped-out, synchronized nature of the work extends throughout the system and down to the employees who work on the line. In Fred Forde's section of Zone 2, each operator has 57.5 seconds to get his task completed. Forde, 37, is an enthusiastic FPS coordinator and group leader on the pedestal line in the truck chassis department. FPS is the Ford Production System. "There's a million acronyms here," Forde says. "I feel like I'm in the Army." His group puts on the truck suspensions.

Every step of every task in Zone 2, as in the entire facility, is outlined in scrupulous detail--which hand goes where, with accompanying pictures--on an operator instruction sheet. They often begin with lines such as, "At the beginning of the shift, walk to the QLS computer and turn it on."

"I do my best to keep the line moving," Forde says. "If someone in my group buzzes, I respond to it to see what the issue is. There are 11 people in this group, and it's been about two years now we've all been working together. Like I say, they drive me nuts."

Just as plant manager Savchetz had, Forde came to the company through his family. His father worked at a Ford plant in New Jersey, then moved to Kansas City when that facility closed. A few years later he sent his son an application.

"When I came up to the floor, the other three people on my job were all running around and sweating bullets, so I was pretty nervous," says Forde, who has been at the plant now for 12 years. "There was all the noise, and things coming and going."

Though Savchetz's first time in a factory was a full 20 years earlier, he recalls being similarly overwhelmed.

"It was a shock," he says. "To be honest, it was pretty traumatic. You got hired in this group of 30 people you've never met, and you sign a form, and the foreman comes in and you walk out into this factory. And it's just the first time, you know? Things are moving, and you just look around, and you go, 'What's going on here?' Quite frankly, the first day I got lost."

Things have changed, of course. Forde says the new tools make a big impact in his job. "The equipment is not as noisy as it used to be," says Forde. "When I hired in, it was mainly air guns. And they're loud--real loud. Even with the earplugs, you'd still hear 'em. Ouch! Now they have electric guns. They're quiet, and they don't have that kick."

For Savchetz the biggest difference is obvious: "We didn't have robots and computers 30 years ago," he says. As a manager, the basic concepts haven't changed, and the magnitude of the operation still overwhelms him. But what impresses him most, he says, is the way that auto-manufacturing facilities such as the one in Kansas City--like many on today's FORTUNE 500, of which Ford has been a resident since the beginning--have made giant, often unnoticed leaps in order to stay competitive in the modern marketplace.

"This ain't Henry Ford's 'We'll paint 'em all black and make 'em all with two doors,'" says Savchetz.

Far from it.