General Motors Kills Its Golden Goose

by Neunelf
general motors kills its golden goose

For a second consecutive year, GM’s Oshawa production facilities have received J.D. Power and Associates’ “Gold Plant Quality Award.” The award is given to the production facility with the fewest number of defects per vehicle, as measured by J.D.’s famous “Initial Quality Study.” Oshawa created cars with just 43 defects per 100 vehicles. The industry average was 124. So what do you do if you have the second most productive assembly plant on the continent? If you’re GM, you do the only logical thing possible: you close it.

There’s no question that GM has too much of everything: brands, models, dealers, workers, factories and suits. Although the media hails GM CEO Rick Wagoner for cutting (a.k.a. buying off) production workers and eliminating plant capacity, they’re forgetting that the same stupidity that lead to the cuts could well mean stupid cuts. As GM downsizes its vast empire to match its diminished role in the US automotive market, it runs the risk of making too many cuts in the wrong places. Like Oshawa.

It may be a piercing glimpse into the obvious, but a plant that produces the fewest defects per vehicle is also building your highest quality cars. GM needs higher quality products like a losing football team needs touchdowns. The days when close enough was good enough are long gone. If GM is going to claw their way back against the likes of Toyota, Honda and Nissan, they can only do it with virtually defect-free products. They know this. In fact, they already claim success; continually citing a supposed “perception gap” between old (i.e. crap) and new (i.e. high quality) GM vehicles.

Again, it all seems pretty simple: produce better vehicles at your award-winning plants and reap the rewards, right? Well here's the thing. The vehicles produced at GM’s Oshawa plants are some of GM’s best sellers. Oshawa’s Number 2 Plant produces the Pontiac Grand Prix and Buick LaCrosse. The LaCrosse is the best selling vehicle under the Buick marque, accounting for some 93k units in 2005. The Grand Prix has only just been eclipsed by the G6 at around 120k units. But here’s the rub: GM (literally) has no business making “best-selling” products that drop as low 93,000 units. Their huge dealer network and corporate infrastructure require gigantic hits, regardless of their quality. And yet…

By killing Oshawa, GM is revealing two important defects in its “right sizing” game plan. First, the General’s generals are demonstrating their lack of focus on product quality. Why kill your best plant before your worst, even if that plant’s products aren’t best sellers? If a hockey team doesn’t make the playoffs, you don’t trade your best player, you rebuild around him (unless you’re from Boston). Oshawa builds some of the best-built products in GM’s lineup. Throwing that skill overboard in favor of less capable factories is insane. Which brings us to the second problem: flexibility.

Honda’s American facilities can change the platform-sharing vehicles that a factory produces in a matter of hours, tailoring production to meet changing demand (e.g. Ridgeline pickup to Odyssey minivan). The new, smaller GM will need to follow Japan’s lead, establishing factories that can create more than one product. This trend increases the importance of any given factory’s workers and processes; product changeover is nowhere near as easy as building the same thing day in, day out. Again, it makes sense to use your A-team, not the accidentally successful B, C and D teams.

A recent GM internal report supported the philosophy. It recommended that GM invest $400m in Oshawa to transform and amalgamate the two plants into a single class-leading, platform-sharing production facility. The plan: let the men and women of CAW local 222 produce the upcoming (and day late) rear-wheel drive, mid-size Zeta platform. If implemented, the end result would be a Canadian produced Cadillac DTS, Buick Lucerne and GM’s latest halo, the Chevrolet Camaro. When asked about this report to save the golden egg laying goose, GM Car Czar Bob Lutz scoffed and dismissed its conclusions as “merely speculative’. Speculative because transferring production northwards would require closing the DTS’ and Lucerne’s current Detroit/Hamtramck home. In the UAW-appeasing, YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) world of GM, that ain’t gonna happen.

It’s not right. GM should use its Oshawa facilities to their utmost capabilities. The factory has proven that they can produce over 500,000 vehicles annually that rank among the best for fit and finish. The Detroit/Hamtramck plant only cranks out 170,000 vehicles with the same number of employees. GM should consider Darwin’s theory and let the back of the herd die. Right size the right plants, kill the stragglers that keep dragging the brands down and invest in what will ultimately make you a better carmaker. After all, it’s one thing to talk about quality. It’s another to actually build it.

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  • Camp6ell Camp6ell on Jun 28, 2006

    One question about this article: Now we believe JD Power? Key comment: "Should those seeking trouble-free wheels be sure to buy one of J.D.???s winners? Hardly." Kind of makes this article worthless...

  • Camp6ell Camp6ell on Jun 28, 2006

    Bobby/Redwing: if you haven't noticed, there appears to be some HTML problem with the posts... at least for me viewing this page with WXP/Firefox some apostrophes are displayed as triple question marks.

  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.
  • Tassos The Euro spec Taurus is the US spec Ford FUSION.Very few buyers care to see it here. FOrd has stopped making the Fusion long agoWake us when you have some interesting news to report.
  • Marvin Im a current owner of a 2012 Golf R 2 Door with 5 grand on the odometer . Fun car to drive ! It's my summer cruiser. 2006 GLI with 33,000 . The R can be money pit if service by the dealership. For both cars I deal with Foreign car specialist , non union shop but they know their stuff !!! From what I gather the newer R's 22,23' too many electronic controls on the screen, plus the 12 is the last of the of the trouble free ones and fun to drive no on screen electronics Maze !
  • VoGhost It's very odd to me to see so many commenters reflexively attack an American company like this. Maybe they will be able to find a job with BYD or Vinfast.
  • VoGhost I'm clearly in the minority here, but I think this is a smart move. Apple is getting very powerful, and has slowly been encroaching on the driving experience over the last decade. Companies like GM were on the verge of turning into mere hardware vendors to the Apple brand. "Is that a new car; what did you get?" "I don't remember. But it has the latest Apple OS, which is all I care about." Taking back the driving experience before it was too late might just be GM's smartest move in a while.