Manufacturing In Motion

People who are not only willing to learn, but who do so enthusiastically—well, they’re unbeatable.

Troy A. Clarke references something that he thinks is exciting. It’s something at the Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant, a $560-million, 1.9-million-ft2 plant that General Motors personnel architected—physically, organizationally, culturally—on its Global Manufacturing System (GMS), a plant that is producing two Cadillac models, the CTS and the SRX, cars that are to contemporary vehicles what Lansing Grand River is to contemporary manufacturing practices. Clarke, the GM group vice president of Manufacturing and Labor Relations, notes, “We’ve populated that operation with a group of folks who are really steeped-in and have worked a lot of their careers with the Toyota Production System and GMS.” So what’s the part that’s exciting in this? It’s what happens when there is a problem. And let’s face it: There is always a problem, no matter where you work or what you do. They solve problems the right way. Which isn’t always the most expedient way.

While GM is typically talked about in the general media for doing such things as providing great financing deals for consumers, the advances that it has been making during the past few years in terms of revolutionizing its manufacturing capabilities—and the word revolutionizing is not too strong a word to use—cannot be underestimated in its efforts to increase its market share. Clarke makes an important point about this transformation: “We have a really good team of manu-facturing professionals at all levels of the organization, a team that we’ve worked hard to get in place.” He describes them as people who have “a lot of experience, and yet, I think importantly, people who are in the prime of their careers and still have a lot of learning left—they are still at the early part of their enthusiasm curve, so to speak. We need to continue that.”

There are, I think, several essential aspects of that point. First of all, note that he’s talking about “manufacturing professionals.” For too long, manufacturing people in this country have been treated as though they are less important than, say, the people in sales and marketing or design—even in manufacturing companies. To be sure, there is a large difference between someone who is just “in manufacturing” and someone who is a “manufacturing professional,” and in large part, that difference—which is based on education, training, demeanor, and attitude—is something that derives from the individual. These are people who are able to work directly with designers and engineers on programs; they are not people who are brought in through the back door at the last minute. Want to make a great product? Then get great designers, engineers—and manufacturing professionals.

Another important aspect is the fact that these people are experienced and yet willing to learn more. Let’s face it: Many people, no matter who they are or what they do, find it easy to become satisfied with the status quo. They have achieved a certain level, and until or unless something radically occurs in their environment, learning—which encompasses change—is anathema to them. But if you’re going to have a world-class organization, then you need to have people who are willing to change proactively—not wait until it is a matter of do-or-die. Too often, the latter occurs, all good intentions notwithstanding. People who are not only willing to learn, but who do so enthusiastically—well, they’re unbeatable.