SMOKESTACKS rise, like motionless pistons, from the old Buick Motor powerhouse at the northwest end of town. Five years ago, the future of the plant and it's coal-fired generators were uncertain. But since 1985, they have helped fuel General Motors Corporation's efforts to match standards set by Japanese automakers. Buick City, the updated Buick Motor assembly line here in Flint, Mich., rivals Toyota City as the maker of the world's most trouble-free automobiles. Last year, J.D. Power & Associates rated it the best automobile assembly plant in North America, and the LeSabre, the automobile that the GM division manufactures here, the second most reliable domestic or imported model sold in the United States.
``It wasn't always that way,'' says Jim Masse, committeeman for United Automobile Workers (UAW) Local 599. ``By 1985, we were done.'' GM stopped production of rear-wheel-drive cars, and ``Buick Motor was not scheduled to build another model.'' Then, after a team of hourly and salary employees offered a plan to restore the aging factory, GM gutted the plant and retooled it.
Workers began assembling the first front-wheel-drive LeSabres on Sept. 23, 1985.
During the first three months of production, the assembly line produced an average of 10 cars an hour - 64 fewer than capacity. The 1986 LeSabre ranked near the bottom in corporate quality surveys. Employees speculated that the factory would close by the end of the model year.
``The turning point came in April 1987, when production dropped from two shifts to one,'' Mr. Masse says. ``We took a different approach to the way we do business. The old way of shouting and finger-pointing and throwing things and threatening became history. We decided not to operate Buick City that way anymore.''
Masse and 2,650 other hourly and salary employees turned to strict inventory control, advanced technology, Japanese-style labor relations, and their own ingenuity to save the plant.
Like many Japanese and aging American automobile plants, Buick City is confined to floor space considered small by modern US standards. The 1.7 million square feet used for painting, welding, and assembling the LeSabre is less than half the size of GM's new manufacturing plants in Detroit; Orion Township, Mich.; Wentzville, Mo.; and Oklahoma City.
The smaller floor-space requires worker to build quality into the LeSabre on the production line. Buick City has room for 10 repair bays, compared with 60 at the Orion plant.
Suppliers deliver parts to Buick City as required by daily production runs. The factory has room for four hours of inventory, not the five day's worth of parts found at other US plants. Buick City also uses an electronic scheduler to give suppliers an hour-by-hour account of the weekly production run.
The stamping operation follows the same tight schedule as its outside suppliers. Three-hundred-ton presses shape and cut metal parts that conveyor belts deliver to the production line as needed. More than 200 robots assist workers to unload parts, install glass, and paint cars. Robots equipped with computers and cameras that give them vision are used.
Consistent with Japanese automobile manufacturing plants, Buick City has only a few wage classifications for hourly employees. Workers organize themselves into teams with an elected leader. Team members, who are paid for what they know - not for length of service, are encouraged to learn every job on their team.
Two-hundred-and-ten teams man 800 work-stations over two shifts. ``Team members rotate jobs as needed,'' says Masse. ``It gives them additional skills, a better understanding of the production process, and makes the work more interesting.''
``I don't think we would have just-in-time delivery and the team approach in this plant if NUMMI [New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.] hadn't demonstrated both processes could operate successfully in this country,'' says Hermann Maass, production manager for Buick City.
GM, the Toyota Motor Company, and the UAW formed NUMMI as a partnership in 1983 to produce a Toyota Corolla look-alike, the Prizm, at a vacant GM plant in Fremont, Calif. The GM plant is the first Japanese-run automobile plant in the US that employs UAW workers.
Mr. Maass sent 50 union members to NUMMI for three-day tours of the plant after he became production manager in 1986.
Six steps for quality
In April 1987, as poor quality and slow sales forced Buick City to shorten its daily production run to one shift, Maass traveled to NUMMI on a fact-finding trip. He returned to Buick City with a book describing how NUMMI uses a six-step process to solve problems. ``I read the book and fell in love with it,'' Maass says. ``The ideas were so simple and easy to follow that I took it to the manufacturing floor. People bought it immediately.
NUMMI's problem-solving process emphasizes the Japanese notion of kaizen - the continuous search for improvement. Teams of workers identify and analyze a problem, and then create, carry out, and evaluate its solution.
For example, operators sprayed undercoating aimed at the underbody of LeSabres onto the sides of the cars. Buick City formed a team that included the manager, operators, and engineers in the paint shop and undercoating area, and the undercoating supplier. They solved the problem by resetting the angle of spray and changing the ventilation in the undercoating area.
Two-and-a-half years after Buick City adopted NUMMI's six-step process:
Outstanding grievances have fallen from 2,000 to 100 for 4,800 hourly employees.
Unexcused absenteeism has dropped below 2 percent, a 40 percent improvement over the old Buick Motor plant.
Time to assemble an automobile has fallen to 36 hours, a 23 percent improvement over Buick Motor. This still lags behind Japanese standards.
Warranty costs have dropped nearly 60 percent for the first month after delivery.
The number of problems per 100 cars as determined by an end-of-line computer have fallen to the lowest of any GM assembly plant worldwide.
And, the J.D. Powers' Initial Quality Survey rated the LeSabre the top domestic make for two years in a row. Owners of 1989 and 1990 models reported less than one problem per car during the first 90 days of ownership.
Critical juncture for GM
Such quality improvement has not yet rescued GM from its broader sales problem. It announced a $2.1 billion special charge to cover plant closings two months ago. Meanwhile, the so-called ``transplant'' Japanese factories have been steadily gaining market share during the last decade. Facing a vicious battle with transplants for the North American market, General Motors and the UAW have taken notice of Buick's success.
This summer, GM announced that it would move production of its full-size van from a Scarborough, Ontario, factory to Flint. GM Canada will close a plant for the first time in its history. Lower wages and laws requiring companies selling cars in Canada to make them there as well could not offset Local 303's unwillingness to accept the team concept of production.
And ``at least 100 people'' from GM's newly opened Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., visited Buick City over the last four years, Maass says. ``Eighteen production and maintenance people have left Buick City to work there.''
Saturn is based on such notions as open communication, shared responsibility, mutual trust and respect, and the continuous search for improvement.
``The plan is in place. It's time for Saturn to execute,'' Maass says. ``The success of Saturn is crucial to GM's presence in the small-car market.''
Maass should know what it takes.
Last year, the LeSabre tied for second with the Toyota Corolla, a stablemate of the Geo Prizm produced at NUMMI, in a J.D. Power survey of reliability among the 154 imported and domestic makes sold in the US.