In a few hours many of us, especially those of us with understanding wives, will be sitting down for the annual ritual of the Superbowl. Actually wives are often very understanding with this particular game, as the commercials are often more enticing and entertaining than the game itself.
This particular year we should focus on a commercial from GM, where they are trying yet again to resuscitate their quality image, particularly in comparison to Toyota. Of course using a commercial to convince buyers of quality is a misjudgement in itself; experience with quality convinces buyers of quality.
To very briefly describe the script, a line full of robots is busily making some GM vehicles (that look remarkably like GM vehicles from last year, which look remarkably like vehicles from five years ago…). One robot drops a screw, the other robots frown at him, and the miscreant is shown the door. He wanders through the wilderness looking for odd jobs such as the speaker at a drive-thru restaurant, looking forlornly at all the GM vehicles driving by, before finally throwing himself off a bridge. Quite a story to tell in sixty seconds. [Update: Our friend Mark at the Lean Blog has found the video online.]
So that is supposed to show GM’s new (again) commitment to quality. Where are the people?
One of the fundamental problems of automation is the fact that machines and robots can’t innovate. The ubiquitous "lights out factory" that so many traditional manufacturing managers aspire to create can never have a continuous improvement program. Toyota receives dozens and even hundreds of suggestions per employee per year, and they estimate that those suggestions, small and large, add several percent to their annual productivity improvements. When was the last time you saw a robot give a suggestion?
Another fundamental aspect of lean manufacturing is "respect for people." If by some miracle GM wakes up and realizes that manufacturing is really about people and replaces those robots with people, they are still in trouble. Because they would still fire that person for a quality problem. Perhaps even as minor as dropping a screw. Who knows how many years of experience that person… errr… robot… had. Poof! Out the door with you! And your fellow employees are taught to despise you for your incompetence. You have no value!
A company that really understood lean and continuous improvement would instead surround that person with an eager team trying to figure out what process failure led to the screw being dropped. Perhaps the person wasn’t trained well, perhaps some fixture was needed. Something. But most likely not the fundamental competence of the person… errr… robot.
This just proves yet again how far behind GM is, and how their management simply doesn’t get it. As one comment to our post on Ford vs. GM: Who’s Ahead? put it, who cares who’s ahead when they’re both so far behind. GM is focused on being number one in sales, even if it takes buying an unprofitable Malaysian automaker, when that metric means absolutely nothing without profits.
Perhaps if GM had spent that $5.2 million on lean training they could have really improved their quality.
Enjoy the Superbowl.