Guy Briggs gave the keynote address at the SAE Automotive Manufacturing Conference & Exposition (AMCE) in Dearborn last month. I'd first met Briggs back in the days when he was the vice president of Manufacturing at Saturn, back when his office in Spring Hill was in a trailer because they were still moving red dirt around on the Tennessee site. Briggs was with Saturn from 1985 to 1991. Today Briggs is a GM vice president and general manager of GM Truck Group Operations; he's been with GM Truck since leaving Saturn, and GM truck is an innovative group.
Given a colorful character like Briggs, an organization that has a record of doing things differently with technology, and a conference with the theme "Manufacturing @ Web Speed," it is disappointing that there weren't more people in the Dearborn Hyatt to hear the keynote.
Not surprisingly, Briggs talked about the Web. What he said about its growth and pervasiveness was pretty predictable; you've heard it all before. And he gave plaudits to General Motors for its various Internet initiatives (which, I learned a day later was more than a party line as Gomez Advisors, a technology analyst firm, ranked GM in first place as "Internet Auto manufacturer" and scored GMBuyPower.com, the corporation's online buying services, as the best in a number of categories).
But when he started talking about implications, he really said some things that people need to hear—and think about...
"Success in any business always comes down to people. People buy our products. And people build our products."
OK. That is not too surprising in and of itself. But Briggs went on to say:
"Too often we take the focus off of people. When you get right down to the bare bones, manufacturing is a people-based business. Technology will never change that."
All of the talk about the Internet tends to focus on what is essentially nothing more than a big communications device as an end onto itself. The fact that it is probably pretty irrelevant if people aren't involved in the conversations that it facilitates isn't something that is too often cited.
"Web-based technology should not be viewed as a threat to job security. In fact, companies that embrace and lead with this technology are actually enhancing the job security for their people because Web-based technology will provide a competitive advantage and help bring higher quality products to market faster in a more cost-effective manner, in turn generating more demand for the leader's products and services. Job security will likely be an issue for employees working for companies that do not aggressively and creatively embrace Web-based technology."
Historically, there has been a tendency for new technology to be perceived as a threat to the livelihoods of workers. But without technology advances, the threats can certainly become realities. Still, this is not to say that the technologists are always right:
"I've been around for a while and lived through a lot of change in our industry. I can remember when this industry thought that robotics would be the solution to all our problems. We found out the hard way. The truth was painful! While robotics certainly play a key role in successful lean manufacturing operations, they will never be the end all."
Arguably, the reason why there was pain was because people were left out of many of the considerations. And the level of considerations that all vehicle manufacturers must be involved with today must be ratcheted up several notches for Briggs observes (and I would write "warned," except for the fact that this is more a statement of what is than what could be):
"Here in North America it's apparent that vehicle prices are going to remain rather consistent. There is very little upside in terms of product pricing, so we are all challenged to do more with less—achieving better quality, incorporating more innovative technology while doing it faster, in a more cost-efficient manner."
To be sure, the Internet can help. But as Briggs repeated throughout his comments, people are what matter in truly achieving success.