Your Custom Car is Ready
At Toyota, special orders now go from zero to built in no time flat.
By Rachel Rosmarin

(Business 2.0) – You want a 2005 Avalon in Aspen Green with a sunroof and leather, but your local Toyota dealer's lot is a sea of Diamond White. Getting the color and options you want might normally take two to three months. But not anymore: Nowadays the carmaker can build exactly to your specifications in just 14 days.

The secret is in the software. Toyota dealers can tap into the Dealer Pipeline Management System to quickly assemble and deliver special-order vehicles. The system gives a Toyota salesman a window into the future—what cars will be built for his dealership during the coming week at the company's four North American plants. If he wants a vehicle that's not earmarked for his showroom, he'll punch in his request and the software will immediately attempt a trade. Assuming, for example, that your dealer is willing to give up an Avalon in Desert Sand that's supposed to be coming his way, the system will match that with another dealer who doesn't want the Aspen Green he's been allotted. A simple swap makes everybody happy.

Should an exchange not be in the cards, there's still a 90 percent chance that you'll get what you want within two weeks. Toyota's software, which processes 700 special-order requests daily, triggers a chain of inquiries to see if one supplier can quickly provide an extra set of cowhide seats while another comes up with a sunroof. It took Toyota six years to convince reluctant suppliers that its new approach wouldn't gum up their manufacturing and cut into profits. Now special orders run as high as 11 percent, up from 2.5 percent in March 2003.

Toyota believes that the seven-month-old program will ultimately please everyone all the time. Buyers get their dream machines, suppliers receive more orders, dealers reduce inventory, and the carmaker gets a distinctive selling point for its brand. "Other companies are catching up to Toyota's quality," says Roy Vasher, general manager of production control at Toyota Motor Manufacturing for North America. "But if we give customers what they want when they want it, we'll have an edge." — RACHEL ROSMARIN