Tour of General Motors Plant Showcases Lean in Action

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Tim VanAntwerp, Granger Construction Company Vice President

It’s no secret that the construction industry has lagged behind the manufacturing sector when it comes to worker productivity. (Perhaps you’ve seen a version of the oft-cited graph comparing productivity of these two industries.) The adoption of Lean manufacturing concepts designed to improve flow as well as reduce and eliminate non-value added work is a big reason for this increase in productivity in the manufacturing sector.

In mid-July I attended the conference of the International Group for Lean Construction in Boston. It was truly inspirational to rub elbows with scholars and practitioners who are studying and implementing lean thinking across the globe. Less than a week after arriving home, a small group of Granger employees took a tour of the General Motors Assembly Plant in Delta Township, Michigan. The conference opened my eyes to the global state of affairs for lean in construction, and the local plant tour let us see them in action at a world-class manufacturing facility.

As I toured GM’s spotless assembly plant that day, I made note of several ways that GM has incorporated lean principles into the plant’s daily workflow and processes.

  1. Visibility of goals. Plant goals are posted in high-visibility areas, reminding all employees and highlighting point-in-time progress towards overall goals. Team-specific dashboards are posted in all work areas. All employees can view goals and progress towards goals like safety, quality and people.
  2. Rubber band assembly line. To assure quality in place, employees are expected to “pull the cord” if something goes wrong during production. Yet, work doesn’t stop, it just moves to the side. In construction we call this “workable backlog” – the things we can plan to do when weather or something else affects our normal workflow. When the assembly line stops moving at GM, work seamlessly continues off to the side until normal operation resumes.
  3. Daily huddles. Having a daily communication forum allows teams to identify current issues, discuss challenges, and devise solutions. These daily huddles keep the team engaged and focused and minimize potential productivity issues.
  4. Treat work stoppages with the same urgency you would treat a jobsite safety incident. Heightening the response level and sense of urgency for a work stoppage allows for development of a quicker solution. Not only that, but treating stoppages like incidents increases the focus and elevates the importance of preventing these stoppages in the first place. If we worked as hard at maintaining flow and preventing stoppages as we do at preventing accidents, how much more productive could we be?
  5. Invest in tools. GM invests in the best possible tools for its employees to complete their jobs. This relatively small investment removes one barrier to completed work. Providing employees with the best possible tools also generates respect for their tools and employers among workers.

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