For the first time in Harbour Report history, General Motors was more efficient than Ford Motor Co. in its assembly and hours spent per vehicle, according to the 2002 report, released Thursday.
Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and Toyota Motor Corp. continued to be the top-ranked companies, with the most productive assembly, stamping and powertrain manufacturing operations in North America in 2001. But U.S. automakers continued to close in on the Asian makers.
GM's improved plant productivity follows a study released last month showing that GM scored strong gains in vehicle quality, climbing to third place among major automotive manufacturers, the highest ranking ever for a U.S. automaker.
"This should signal to everyone that we are taking the goal of being the productivity and quality leader very seriously," said Gary Cowger, president of GM North America.
GM began its major push toward lean manufacturing about 10 years ago, but didn't start reaping the benefits until about four years ago, said Ron Harbour, president of Harbour and Associates, of Troy, Mich., which compiles the annual report.
"At long last, (GM's) systems and processes are paying off in improved productivity, higher quality and lower costs," he said.
GM improved 4.5 percent overall and was the highest-scoring North American maker in assembly, engine and transmission productivity. For the first time, a GM plant, Oshawa, Ontario, No.1, which builds the Chevrolet Impala and Monte Carlo, had the highest assembly productivity of all North American car and truck plants.
Ford had the best productivity of the Big 3 in 1997, but only aggressively pursued lean manufacturing a couple of years ago, Harbour said. He predicted a better outcome for Ford in the 2003 report.
Ford spokeswoman Della DiPietro said Ford has refocused its efforts on improving quality, for example, by assigning more staff to plants to monitor production and pulling more vehicles off the assembly line to check quality. Those added quality checks slowed Ford's productivity last year, she said.
DaimlerChrysler, last among automakers in labor hours per vehicle, stands to show the greatest improvement in the next couple of years, Harbour said. Were seeing initial evidence that DaimlerChrysler is following a similar template that GM did."
Nissan scored the best of the 10 companies ranked in overall assembly productivity for the eighth consecutive year. Honda placed second in assembly productivity and first in engine productivity. Toyota was second in engine productivity and led in several stamping categories.
Mitsubishi was the most improved company in the hours per vehicle category. It's Normal, Ill., plants hours per vehicle dropped 8.6 percent to 21.82 hours. It has had a 41 percent improvement since 1999.
Harbour said the Big 3 would each save about $350 per vehicle if they matched their Japanese rivals' hours-per-vehicle rate.
The Big 3 U.S. automakers also are burdened by the costs of supporting their many retired workers. Japanese makers have a younger work force and fewer retirees.
The Japanese manufacturers are pouring those cost savings back into the quality of the vehicle, helping build customer loyalty and improving their market share, he said.
At the same time, Japanese automakers were far more profitable in North America than U.S. makers. Japanese automakers had profits of from $1,182 per vehicle sold in North America for Toyota to $1,661 per vehicle for Honda during the last fiscal year, Harbour said.
Ford and the Chrysler arm of DaimlerChrysler lost money last year, while GM had a profit of $337 per vehicle.