Auto worker for a day

Mar 31, 2011

Hundreds of auto workers will be assembling Chevy Sonics and Buick Veranos at GM's plant in Orion Township in just a few months. 

Every one of those workers will go through a simulated work environment training exercise before getting anywhere near a real car. The power tools and the bolts are real, but the cars and parts are made of wood. 

GM recently invited a group of auto journalists to take part in the exercise, to get a taste of what building a car is like.

The press is divided up into teams. Team 3's leader is Sabrina Wills, a member of UAW Local 602. She instructs us how to do the work, with each step meticulously standardized.

"Once the line starts moving, if the line moves at a normal pace, you’re gonna find yourself in the hole," she says.

Joanne Muller of Forbes asks, "So what do we do then?"

Wills:  "You’re gonna pull for help.  Pull your andon cord."

Team 3 will install the headlights, taillights, and bumpers. Wills says dropping a nut is par for the course when you’re new to the job. But the cardinal sin is dropping a part. In real life, that means it’s scrap. 

She drops a part on the cement floor to make a point. The sound reverberates through the big factory.

"You’re gonna hear the part hit the floor.  So don’t try to hide it under the line, because we don’t wanna put that broken headlight on a car."

As we wait for the line to start, Joanne Muller – who, by the way, has red hair – brings up that classic "I Love Lucy" episode. The one where Ethel and Lucy fall behind on the assembly line in a chocolate factory.

"I’ll just start putting bolts in my mouth!" jokes Muller.

Well, guess what, Lucy. Real life is about to imitate art. 

The assembly line gets moving. And even though it moves slowly, we have a hard time keeping up. We drop nuts. We forget to put on parts. We pull that andon cord a lot. 

The cord triggers a distinctive tune for each team so the right team leader knows when to come running.  Sometimes the line stops and you have a minute to catch up. 

But if there’s anyone who thinks working on an assembly line is easy, take it from me. It’s not. When the whistle finally blows, we head over to a break room to do what real auto workers do – find ways to improve safety, teamwork, quality, and cost.

"We had a complete taillight left off a car," points out Wills.  "No names, but......Craig.   (Craig Trudell of Bloomberg .)  "So we did have a few quality issues."

We brainstorm ways to divide the work more equally, so some workers aren't putting in four nuts while their teammate has to put in eight. Aprons might help, suggests Muller, to put the nuts in, so we don't have to waste so much energy.

When the results are tallied for the entire workforce of journalists, it’s not pretty. Twenty-two safety violations in 20 minutes.  Twenty-five quality problems. And we built only 13 cars instead of the target of 18. 

To make it more humiliating, the work we're doing is a grossly simplified version of the real thing. Another team member of mine, Mike Colias of Automotive News, thinks our team would have done better if a bin full of the wrong parts hadn’t shown up at his work station.

"What do you think, sabotage?" I ask, sotto voce.  "I think it was," deadpans Colias.  "I think one of these other teams did it."

Which, of course, they didn't. They were too busy messing up their own work to worry about us. 

Fortunately, our next 20 minute shift goes a lot better.  The brainstorming worked.   Fewer safety violations, fewer forgotten parts.  Except... remember that cardinal sin? Dropping a part?

Yep.  Somebody did that.   And because I’m a journalist, I have to admit it was somebody on my team.  

Just call me Ethel.