When Toyota first began to rise to prominence in this country, the company’s cars were known as cheap, plasticky, not-to-be trusted imports.

Now Toyota is on pace to unseat GM as the world’s auto sales leader, and is regarded as one of the most innovative companies around.

A New Yorker article by James Surowiecki gives a quick rundown on how that happened.

At Toyota, “the goal is not to make huge, sudden leaps, but, rather, to make things better on a daily basis … Instead of trying to throw long touchdown passes, as it were, Toyota moves down the field by means of short and steady gains.”

The piece had a lot of resonance for me, because I’ve been talking lately with people who wonder where the Daily News is going, if the site today represents the culmination of our business plan or merely a first step toward a much more ambitious goal.

Most news organizations today are well past their formative phase. The typography, logo, tone, biases, breadth and quality of coverage have been compressed by the weight of time into diamond-hard rules. While layoffs may loom, there’s not much question that someone will show up to cover the City Council meeting, and the office Internet service works pretty well.

For us, it’s a different picture. The Daily News, unlike any news organization I’ve ever worked for, is a work in progress.

Every day we try to move the ball forward an inch or two. We attract a dozen more readers, bring another talented writer on board, hone our procedures for retaining citizen journalists, wrestle with our accounting system, fantasize about lighting our non-functional wireless router on fire, tweak the site design and connect with funders. There are few gigantic leaps in this process.

Of course, we can’t slap a big ‘Work in Progress’ sign on the front page. Readers will value us — or not — for what they read on the site any given day, not what they hope they’ll read a year from now.

That can be frustrating. Today’s news report represents the best we can do with the resources we have available. It doesn’t represent our vision for what our news report should look like.

But it’s also amazing to compare the site today to the site we operated a year ago. We’ve doubled our readership, regularly beat the Trib and Sun-Times on stories of citywide importance, and have built a crew of 45 or so dedicated volunteer neighborhood correspondents.

Likewise, it’s fun to look at what we’ve achieved given the resources we have. I think we run one hell of a $200,000 news organization.

Surowiecki says: “Every day, Toyota knows a little bit more, and does things a little bit better than it did the day before.”

When things proceed at that pace, it can be hard to tell they’re proceeding at all — until you add up the incremental gains and realize you’ve just toppled a giant like GM.