Buick Sets Pace for General Motors LeSabre Model Scores near Top of Industry Ratings; Plant Paves Way for Saturn Venture. QUEST FOR QUALITY

By Tom Ulrich, | The Christian Science Monitor, December 18, 1990 | Go to article overview

Buick Sets Pace for General Motors LeSabre Model Scores near Top of Industry Ratings; Plant Paves Way for Saturn Venture. QUEST FOR QUALITY


Tom Ulrich,, The Christian Science Monitor


SMOKESTACKS rise, like motionless pistons, from the old Buick Motor powerhouse at the northwest end of town. Five years ago, the future of the plant and it's coal-fired generators were uncertain. But since 1985, they have helped fuel General Motors Corporation's efforts to match standards set by Japanese automakers.

Buick City, the updated Buick Motor assembly line here in Flint, Mich., rivals Toyota City as the maker of the world's most trouble-free automobiles. Last year, J.D. Power & Associates rated it the best automobile assembly plant in North America, and the LeSabre, the automobile that the GM division manufactures here, the second most reliable domestic or imported model sold in the United States.

"It wasn't always that way," says Jim Masse, committeeman for United Automobile Workers (UAW) Local 599. "By 1985, we were done." GM stopped production of rear-wheel-drive cars, and "Buick Motor was not scheduled to build another model." Then, after a team of hourly and salary employees offered a plan to restore the aging factory, GM gutted the plant and retooled it.

Workers began assembling the first front-wheel-drive LeSabres on Sept. 23, 1985.

During the first three months of production, the assembly line produced an average of 10 cars an hour - 64 fewer than capacity. The 1986 LeSabre ranked near the bottom in corporate quality surveys. Employees speculated that the factory would close by the end of the model year.

"The turning point came in April 1987, when production dropped from two shifts to one," Mr. Masse says. "We took a different approach to the way we do business. The old way of shouting and finger-pointing and throwing things and threatening became history. We decided not to operate Buick City that way anymore."

Masse and 2,650 other hourly and salary employees turned to strict inventory control, advanced technology, Japanese-style labor relations, and their own ingenuity to save the plant. Compact floor-space

Like many Japanese and aging American automobile plants, Buick City is confined to floor space considered small by modern US standards. The 1.7 million square feet used for painting, welding, and assembling the LeSabre is less than half the size of GM's new manufacturing plants in Detroit; Orion Township, Mich.; Wentzville, Mo.; and Oklahoma City.

The smaller floor-space requires worker to build quality into the LeSabre on the production line. Buick City has room for 10 repair bays, compared with 60 at the Orion plant.

Suppliers deliver parts to Buick City as required by daily production runs. The factory has room for four hours of inventory, not the five day's worth of parts found at other US plants. Buick City also uses an electronic scheduler to give suppliers an hour-by-hour account of the weekly production run.

The stamping operation follows the same tight schedule as its outside suppliers. Three-hundred-ton presses shape and cut metal parts that conveyor belts deliver to the production line as needed. More than 200 robots assist workers to unload parts, install glass, and paint cars. Robots equipped with computers and cameras that give them vision are used.

Consistent with Japanese automobile manufacturing plants, Buick City has only a few wage classifications for hourly employees. Workers organize themselves into teams with an elected leader. Team members, who are paid for what they know - not for length of service, are encouraged to learn every job on their team.

Two-hundred-and-ten teams man 800 work-stations over two shifts. "Team members rotate jobs as needed," says Masse. "It gives them additional skills, a better understanding of the production process, and makes the work more interesting."

"I don't think we would have just-in-time delivery and the team approach in this plant if NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.) hadn't demonstrated both processes could operate successfully in this country," says Hermann Maass, production manager for Buick City.

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