Instead of resisting lean and TPS, the workers at NUMMI embraced the changes, he adds. "They were desperate for the change," Gonzalez-Beltran says. "The traditional combative or antagonistic relationship between union and management was something they didn't want to go through again, so they embraced the new concept of working together, mutual trust and respect, and the level of involvement in the Toyota Production System that was required from them."
"I'm not going to say that it's a disadvantage, but it's always a little bit more challenging to run a plant realizing the Toyota principles with the UAW representation," he adds, "mostly because of the flexibility that the other non-union plants have in terms of being able to move the workforce or apply certain strategies that, because of contract obligations, we cannot. So it is a challenge here."
"The workforce got older and some of those team members who were here at the beginning, eventually they retired," notes Gonzalez-Beltran. "We have a training program to sustain that level of knowledge and understanding of TPS with new hires." NUMMI's TPS program includes basic lean manufacturing training, and the plant will soon be taking aim at standardized work. Currently, NUMMI team members are working on jishuken activities, which emphasize learning a specific skill or project-solving in a short time of a week or less.
"Jishuken is when you give a very challenging project to a person or group of people and they work on it in a very short period of time--four or five days," Gonzalez-Beltran says, comparing jishuken to a kaizen team event. "You work on improving uptime or quality, reducing scrap, or reducing the number of defects that are coming out of the plant. They work 12 - 15, even 18 hours a day, doing the work. Then they call me, I go in, and they present to us, 'this is what we are doing, and these are the results.'"
With lean training, NUMMI team members attend classes with classroom presentations, and other sessions with hands-on involvement through a series of simulations, notes Walter Odisho, general manger, truck operations and plastics manufacturing. "By going through that, we try to drive home the point that having an organized and TPS-oriented production system makes sense," says Odisho, an employee at NUMMI for 17 years. "We try to establish and differentiate between a pull system and a push system. TPS is a pull system where ultimately the customer and the market condition demands are placed onto a production environment to meet the customer needs and customer wants, in terms of quality, quantity, and timing. So producing the right quality, the right quantity, at the right time is ultimately what we strive for."
The factory also uses a system called Set Parts Supply, or SPS, which helps cut down on waste at an operator's workcell or position on the assembly line. "Set Parts Supply is where we work on eliminating line-side parts," Odisho adds. "The idea is to have the right part at the disposal of the operator, at the right time. For example, if I'm building a vehicle with the option of a CD player, when I turn around I would expect to see a CD player that matches the requirement of that vehicle come to me, rather than an operator turning around and selecting one from the host of parts to pick.
"SPS has the potential to simplify the operator's job, thereby improving the overall quality of the vehicle; also it has the potential to reduce the line-space requirements, because we don't need to store as many parts line-side, thereby reducing the upstream parts inventory, reducing costs. And ultimately, if it's done correctly, it reduces the amount of work that an operator does. An operator will not have wasted motion by turning around and selecting, thinking, reaching, picking up--all of that's automatically done. You add value-added work where non-value-added reaching, pulling and selecting, and perhaps some walking, existed before."
Learning lean manufacturing basics when he started at NUMMI impressed 15-year NUMMI employee Salvador Sanchez, assistant manager, Toyota Production System, plant/manufacturing, who now heads up NUMMI's TPS and lean efforts. A business school graduate from the University of California-Berkeley, Sanchez joined NUMMI in 1990 as a team member right when Toyota was installing a new truck assembly at the plant. He was immediately immersed in TPS.
"First coming in with a new truck, there were a lot of TMC regular team leaders, group leaders, from Japan," Sanchez notes, "and they'd work with us closely, ensuring that we understood the basics: how to hold a body, hold our tools and equipment. We didn't call it ergonomics 15 years ago, but really that's what it is. It's just how to hold body and tools in the correct position.
"At the time, nobody explained to us that this is TPS," recalls Sanchez, whose recently-retired father, Salvador Sanchez, was an original NUMMI team member who previously worked for GM at the plant. "They would say, 'Look at this job, if you were going to stay on here the rest of your life, how would you like to set this job up in the most efficient way?'
"For them, it was everyday work, it wasn't anything special," he adds of the visiting TMC personnel who taught TPS. "When I became a team leader, I started understanding that behind everything we did there was a philosophy or some level of thinking that, as a team member, you didn't really understand."
After spending a couple of years at the Toyota Supplier Support Center in Kentucky, Sanchez returned to NUMMI committed to helping the company understand TPS and standardized work. "I wanted to help improve NUMMI's culture here, and be able to come up with good kaizens and reduce lead times. One of the changes is that we're aligned with every department, meaning that we have a person from our stamping facility, and we have a person from our body shop facility. They're not experts, but their job in our group for a two-year time period is to learn the fundamentals of TPS--the basics of that department."
A recent jishuken focused on the plant's body-shop operation, but team members from assembly and paint were involved in week-long workshops. "These events focus on some business need of that department, and the other important thing is that everybody there can develop and learn something they didn't know about TPS--whether it's the application of tools, a standardized work form, a way to visually tell a story, or maybe problem-solving," Sanchez says. "So you have to walk away with some improvement, some self-improvement."
The training activities also help NUMMI workers understand the needs of others in the manufacturing facility, so workers realize that successfully applying TPS requires understanding needs of internal customers as well as those of the ultimate car-buying customer.
"One of the things that Toyota really talks about is Customer First, and that means understanding not only customers that are buying our vehicles, but the customers that are within our own walls," Sanchez adds. "If I'm working the paint shop, my life usually focuses on paint, but I have to take myself out of that position and look at what kind of defects, what kind of vehicles, am I sending to my customer? Does the vehicle satisfy them, and how can I make it better? The developing of this TPS group, coming back and aligning them with their department, and also really running the learning, has been a key for us.
"Just like anybody in our group, they have a feeling that they're always going to be learning and developing. It's difficult for people here to not buy in, because TPS is a big part of our culture."
This article was first published in the September 2005 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.