Implementing change can be a difficult task for any organization, big or small. Imagine having to train nearly 198,000 hourly workers in 176 facilities throughout the world on a new way to manufacture products they have been building for nearly 100 years. Sound a bit daunting? That’s the situation GM faced when it had to introduce workers to its Global Manufacturing System (GMS). Trying to devise a simple, yet uncompromising way to understand the concepts of team-building, reducing waste and improving manufacturing quality, the automaker created its Simulated Work Environment (SWE), which debuted in August 2000 as a part of the training program for workers at GM’s Lansing Grand River plant.
Unlike other manufacturing simulations utilizing small toys and computer systems to train line workers on such crucial facets as standardized work process and productivity, GM’s simulation utilizes a mock-up of an actual-sized assembly line, with mock vehicles constructed of wood, to provide hands-on training in near real-world manufacturing scenarios. GM’s newest North American plant in Delta Township, MI, (home of the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook crossovers) houses one of the 39 SWEs located throughout the world, all of which are identically configured. “Every individual at every GM plant goes through this exact same simulated work environment,” says Gary Cowger, group vice president-GM global manufacturing and labor.
The square configuration of the line allows 13 wooden cars to run through the simulation on a continuous loop, as four teams each comprised of four team members and a team leader, are responsible for four jobs on the line. Each team member is required to flex between two job assignments—the first could include placing bumpers on each vehicle, while the second could be quality audit responsibilities—using common household drills and nuts to affix or remove wooden components from fixed attachment points on each vehicle. The line utilizes moving conveyors, as well as a functional andon cord/board system to stop the assembly operation if any problems or backlogs develop.
“We want the team members not to be afraid to use that andon cord because we are here to help them and we don’t know if they need help unless they pull that cord,” says Dale Wisniewski, a 23-year GM veteran who now works as a project manager at GM’s GMS integration center.
The simulation training includes group meetings during which time team members can make suggestions about how to make their jobs easier and to improve productivity that are then tested and implemented right away. According to Cowger, one thing becomes evident right away: “None of this works without having a common manufacturing system that focuses on allowing the operator to do their job day in and day out while having the support they need to get their job done. The GMS system was designed to provide total support for the team member,” Cowger says. SWE also results in reduced time required to retrain workers who might move to another facility, along with reducing the amount of time plant managers have to spend acclimating to their new surroundings. “It’s a matter of raising the bar when it comes to execution and it makes it much easier for us to move resources around the world,” Cowger says.—KMK