Manufacturing Strategy Plays a Key Role in GM's Revival

GM's manufacturing strategy is delivering major improvements in quality and cost, while supporting the automaker's global footprint.

Scott Whybrew isn't in the "wow business." That's the domain of product designers, who are tasked with drawing up sleek lines and eye-catching curves that generate the "wow" factor when a consumer first sets sight on a vehicle.

But that doesn't diminish the role of manufacturing in the resurgence of General Motors Co. (IW 500/4), Whybrew told OEMs and suppliers at the Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Mich.

"In many ways, the manufacturing strategy is helping us redefine and reinvent how we do business in General Motors," said Whybrew, GM's executive director of global manufacturing engineering.

On a fundamental level, manufacturing's role at GM is delivering "flawless quality," Whybrew said. From the customer's perspective, that means a perfect paint job and exterior fit, doors that open and close easily and a vehicle that starts up every time the customer turns the key.

"Those are things that our customers take for granted and that they deserve," Whybrew said. "And if we do those things right, they come back time and time again."

Lately, manufacturing has been making tremendous strides in getting those things right.

In J.D. Power & Associates' 2012 Initial Quality Study, GM earned its highest score in the 26-year history of the closely watched quality measure, with nine GM vehicles either receiving a segment award or placing in the top three of their respective segments.

How has GM done it? Whybrew pointed to one of the five basic principles of the automaker's Global Manufacturing System: people involvement.

"Quality for us really starts at the team-member and team-leader level," Whybrew said during a panel discussion at the Management Briefing Seminars. "We know that we can go in and mandate quality, and quality systems will be followed. Or we can go in and we can teach, we can listen and we can actually execute ideas coming from a team.

"When you break an assembly plant down into the 1,300 unique elements that may be there, typically you'll have people with those systems. If you can have that team of people understanding their product-quality requirements in their station, and they commit themselves to not shipping a defect, it becomes contagious."

To ensure that defects are not passed from station to station, GM has taken a principle of built-in quality that once was strictly the domain of engineering -- process-failure modes-and-effects analysis -- and implemented it on the factory floor.

"We've taught PFMA at a team level, and the folks are managing to risk factors and really putting error-proofing in at the station level," Whybrew explained.

Further proof that GM's manufacturing strategy is working: From 2007 through 2011, GM's North American operations reduced their warranty incidents per thousand vehicles by nearly 50%, according to Whybrew.

During that same time period, the automaker cut its global manufacturing cost per unit by 44%.

GM has achieved those types of numbers through process improvements, new technologies and strategic partnerships, Whybrew noted.  

At GM's assembly plant in Lake Orion, Mich., for example, the automaker has simplified material delivery with automated guided carts in lieu of overhead conveyors; implemented a radiant-tube heating system and other cutting-edge technology in the paint shop; and leveraged a "flexible" UAW contract to produce the subcompact Chevrolet Sonic, Whybrew explained.

Supporting a Global Enterprise

With 70% of GM's 2012 revenue generated outside the United States, manufacturing has supported the automaker's growth by shifting to global platforms -- such as the Chevy Sonic -- that provide "more flexibility and inter-buildability among our global components and assembly plants," Whybrew said.

He noted that GM plans to reduce its number of vehicle platforms from 30 to 14 by 2018.

Those 14 platforms will cover 90% of the vehicles that GM sells globally, he added.

"We're also reducing the number of build combinations so we can build quality vehicles in a cost-effective way," Whybrew said. "As part of our efforts to reduce complexity, we're commonizing brand-neutral parts that are in those platforms, and we're reducing our engine variance to about 10, as we move toward more stringent regulations in all of our global markets."

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