In July 1987, 33-year-old, up-and-coming General Motors executive Tom LaSorda got the call to run CAMI Automotive Inc. in Ingersoll, Ontario, for GM affiliate Suzuki Motor Corp.
The ensuing experience taught LaSorda, now CEO of the Chrysler group, lessons that have stuck.
"If I walked through one of our plants today, I could tell you the efficiency of labor in 35 to 40 minutes," LaSorda, 51, said in a telephone interview last month.
"While the line's running, I see how many people are working in the car versus how many people are in the rack grabbing parts.
"If people are putting parts on the car, you're getting labor a consumer would pay for. If they're standing at a rack picking up a part or waiting, you'll know there's huge waste."
LaSorda spent 12 weeks in Japan taking a crash course in lean manufacturing before going to CAMI, which produced its first vehicle in 1989. CAMI's mission: Supply GM with small fuel-efficient vehicles.
"It was the best on-the-job learning for the lean production system because Suzuki followed Toyota's production system," LaSorda said.
"What they taught me strongly is to identify waste in any operation or process, and I think that's pretty evident today.
"I was there four years implementing it. It was a greenfield site, and we started from ground zero. I was involved in the recruiting, selection and training process."
LaSorda made a point of trying to memorize the name of every new employee when he participated in training sessions, which each had 20 to 25 people.
"The first 500 employees, I memorized everyone's name, at least their first name," he said.
From CAMI, LaSorda moved to Europe to launch GM's landmark lean assembly plant in Eisenach in the former East Germany. But his CAMI experience taught LaSorda the importance of detail and discipline.
"Suzuki's discipline on cost is huge," he said. "The last thing is people; everything is done through people."
You may e-mail Bradford Wernle at [email protected]