LORDSTOWN Plant manager strives to change workers' attitudes

Union official says he is optimistic about changes because workers want to give their input.
LORDSTOWN -- Maureen Midgley is in a hurry to make changes at the Lordstown Assembly Plant.
The new plant manager at the huge General Motors plant wants to improve the way the assembly line runs. She wants it to be more efficient, less wasteful and to put out better quality. But more than changing the way workers do their jobs, she wants to change the way they think.
Workers must find ways to do their jobs better, she says, even if it means helping the plant reduce the number of hourly jobs.
And she wants these changes in attitudes by the end of this year.
There's no time to waste because the plant is under two sorts of pressure, one from within and one from without, she said.
GM is considering a plan to spend $500 million to renovate the plant in advance of producing a new small car there by 2004. Nearly every department in the plant would be relocated as the plant rearranges itself to improve product flow.
It would be impossible to work on changing attitudes while the plant is undergoing a model change and a renovation, she said. So she wants to work on changing attitudes now.
Another factor: Also, competitive pressures are forcing quick action, she said. While Lordstown has been improving its productivity numbers by 5 percent to 10 percent each year, so have other plants.
If Lordstown improves only at 5 percent, it will fall behind other plants, which is significant because there is too much manufacturing capacity in the auto industry, she said.
Even if GM approves the plant remodeling soon, it could cancel it later if the plant doesn't keep becoming more efficient, she said.
Koreans are coming on rapidly, especially in the small-car segment, she said. They have improved quality, which used to be a problem, and are still putting out low-cost cars, she said.
Key to her strategy is implementing GM's Global Manufacturing System, which is an operating system developed by the corporation that was never enacted at Lordstown. She wants most of GMS enacted this year.
In the past, things were done "the Lordstown way," she said. The plant was allowed to deviate from GM practices elsewhere because the union had resisted change, fearing reductions in jobs, she said. The company didn't want workers to stage a wildcat strike and shut down the plant, she said.
John Mohan, shop chairman for United Auto Workers Local 1112, said the union and its members are welcoming the chance to be more involved in how the plant is run.
"We've been asking for years and years. There's no better expert than the guy building the car," he said.
More on GMS: Midgley said implementing GMS will result in fewer employees at the plant, but union workers still should support the changes.
"Cost reductions and elimination of waste are job security. We want them to get that message," she said.
GMS has 16 initiatives that include working in a structured, small-team environment. The goal is to build cars at the lowest possible cost by involving workers, Midgley said.
For example, one of the initiatives is error-proofing work stations. The best manufacturing systems can be undone by human error, so workers are asked to help find ways to prevent error. If a station has two bolts, they should be of different diameters so operators can't use the wrong one, Midgley said.
It used to be that line workers waited for engineers to spot such items and make changes, she said. "We want them to find the opportunities."
Mohan said that it used to be that GM didn't want the line workers involved.
"Industrial engineers used to set up a whole department, and we'd have to figure it out later," he said.
Cutting waste: Much of GMS involves cutting waste, especially waste of time and movement. Now, workers sometimes complete their task but then have to wait for the next car on the line to arrive, Midgley said.
Or workers may be walking to a parts bin several times when a system could be designed to keep the parts close at hand, she said.
Mohan said GMS isn't much different from other efforts in recent years to improve communication between union workers and supervisors, he said.
Whether union officials support GMS depends on each case in which it is applied, he said. Union officials are always concerned when company officials want to change someone's job, he said.
"We want to be sure everyone has a fair job for a fair day's pay. We still have issues on work standards and we will address them as they come up," he added.
Mohan said the company's goal is to improve productivity by having work done by as few workers as possible, while the union wants to save as many jobs as it can.
Midgley said she hopes that someday union and management can both work together and agree that what's best for the company and the plant is good for both sides. The plant has about 4,360 hourly employees on the job and about 140 on leave.
That number has held steady in recent months, although it is down from 7,500 in 1995. Mohan said he sees the current number holding steady in the near future.
It is expected that a renovated plant would employ fewer people, but company and union officials say they don't know how many until they know what type of car would be built and how it is designed.
If the plant renovation is approved, an upgrade at the adjacent fabrication plant also is expected.
GM's fabrication division has plans for a $230 million upgrade of that plant if the assembly plant receives a new model. Workers last year agreed to a four-year labor contract that would begin Sept. 14, 2003.
GM had asked to negotiate the contract in advance of expiration to prepare for the new equipment that is to be installed at the fabrication plant, which employs about 2,400 hourly workers.

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