SAGINAW, Mich. - Ask plant manager Steve Constable how Delphi Automotive Systems can compete after it cuts the General Motors umbilical cord, and he will talk about monument removal.
No, not gravestone removal. A monument is Constable's term for a large piece of machinery -such as a transfer stamping press - that churns out millions of identical parts each year.
When General Motors owned 50 percent of the U.S. market, its in-house suppliers had little need for flexible and lean production. Those days are gone.
Constable's Plant 6 makes steering components for Delphi. During the past two years, Constable has removed monuments, cut costs and won several contracts to supply Toyota. But now Delphi must transfer lessons learned here to its sprawling manufacturing operations.
The stakes are high as Delphi prepares for its spinoff from GM. The faster it can run lean and make labor peace, the more valuable it will be for GM and its shareholders.
Recently, the company was valued at $10.2 billion, based on a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Delphi is counting on its Delphi Manufacturing System to standardize its production worldwide.
In 1995, Delphi President J.T. Battenberg formed a task force to figure out how to do so. The team benchmarked Toyota Motor Corp. and other manufacturers, then began to roll out the system worldwide.
It has had some effect. In the document submitted in November to the SEC, Delphi reported that it had boosted sales per employee to $247,000 last year, up from $176,000 in 1993.
Plant 6 is doing its part through monument removal. As the plant switches to flexible production, Constable's workers are yanking out the monuments, one by one.
In their place, Constable is setting up production cells, U-shaped miniature production lines staffed by a handful of workers. The cells can produce small lots of a given component easily, switching quickly from product to product to meet customer demand.
It is the antithesis of large-scale batch production.
'It is taking a cultural change here,' Constable said. 'It took four years at Plant 6. Going from traditional to lean production is not an easy transition. We still have people talking lean and thinking traditional.'
It probably would not have been possible without the cooperation of UAW Local 699.
In 1993, the union agreed to reduce the number of job classifications from 120 down to five. In turn, management pledged to find work for employees who were not needed on the new assembly lines.
In August 1997, Constable was ready to perform a wall-to-wall plant examination. The biggest problems turned out to be material flow. To put it simply, each part underwent a circuitous route through the plant as it was transformed from raw material on the loading dock to a finished component.
'Actually, you didn't need an assessment to figure that out,' Constable said dryly. 'All you had to do was walk out on the floor and dodge the forklifts.'
To eliminate production bottlenecks, Constable has begun to rearrange the machinery.
To improve quality, he installed overhead 'andon' cords that workers can pull to call for help. The union also allowed Constable to get rid of some inefficient paint booths and outsource the painting operation.
Although the plant's continuing shake-up is unsettling for some of the older hourly workers, union leaders remain supportive, though philosophical.
'Any time you make changes, the elected officials will pay hell for it,' said John Norton, a plant committeeman for Local 699. 'There are times we don't always agree with management. But we try not to get emotional about it. We still have collective bargaining, and that's how we compromise.'