Bill Shaw is a high-ranking official at General Motors, as its North America manufacturing manager. And he is quite familiar with GM’s Town of Tonawanda engine plant and the region in general. In 1996, he was named assistant plant manager at the Tonawanda site. Two years later, he became plant manager of a GM engine and components complex in St. Catharines, Ont., and worked there for several years. Shaw’s duties have grown substantially: He is responsible for metal stamping, vehicle assembly, engine and battery assembly operations at nine GM plants in the United States and Canada, including Tonawanda’s. He recently came to town for the plant’s 75th anniversary celebration.
Q: You oversee nine plants. What stands out about Tonawanda?
A: What’s unique about this plant in my mind is the resiliency of this workforce, the community, the media and the support around this plant. (GM) announced a couple of products here that ultimately got canceled. Some communities would have come down really hard and been very negative. This workforce banded together to figure out ‘how are we going to recover from that and attract new business?’ They did, and as a result, you can see the success, with both the LGE 4-cylinder engine and the V-8 engine. Huge successes.
Q: GM has posted a solid increase in new-vehicle sales over a year ago. How does that influence production here?
A: In general, we produce an engine for every vehicle. There is some aftermarket (production). But in general, as the volume of vehicles goes up, the volume of engines goes up. So as the market expands, and our percentage of the market expands, the more production that we have here.
We forecast out and we look at the range of capacity for any engine module. Right now, we’re planning to fully utilize the modules that are here, so increases in the market will drive us to look at increases in investment. We’ll look at things like operating shifts. Can we get more out of the operating shifts? Can we run overtime? Can we run through breaks and lunches? Those are all operating variables. But predominantly, when you see a shift in the market that’s substantial, we’re years ahead of that, forecasting that and planning for that in an investment.
Q: GM Tonawanda has been hiring workers who are new to the auto industry. How has that been going?
A: It’s twofold. I’m going to say we’ve always had quality people. But the difference is the matchup of what traits we’re looking for in people, No. 1. And No. 2, the amount of training. I’ve mentioned 60,000 hours of training being logged. It’s our responsibility to develop people. … People don’t come out of school learning how to build an engine. They come out of school with basic skills and knowledge. Then we have to take that and convert it into a world-class engine builder.
Q: How has GM Tonawanda changed since when you were here as an assistant manager in the 1990s?
A: In ’96, we were starting the first global engine program, the L-850. So it was the first introduction of lean manufacturing. Today, lean manufacturing permeates the entire site. We were starting a new transformation into employee engagement. Today, it’s totally different. It’s ingrained in the way we do business. The whole focus on quality – we used to build product, inspect, and make sure only good product left. Today, we only manufacture good product. And so the focus is assuring we don’t produce a defect, not just, ‘don’t ship a defect.’ Big difference.
Q: How can this plant stay viable in GM’s eyes? A: It’s a continuation, it’s not something new. It’s continuously improving every day, removing waste from the operation. We’ve defined waste in seven forms. We’ve taken that message to the (production) floor so that everybody in the organization becomes a part of our future success.
Q: What are examples of what GM considers waste?
A: Creating inventory is a waste. Correction is a waste. Walking or waiting, those are wastes. So we get it down to elements people can understand.
Q: What is it like to come back and see where this plant is now, in your new capacity?
A: It just does my heart good, absolutely. … To think about what’s happened in the manufacturing world in the past five years, it’s great to have been around for 75 years and back on a growth spurt.
Q: This plant is well-known locally, but how about within GM’s leadership?
A: Oh yeah. I’ve mentioned the number of engine variants that this plant has produced – it’s touched almost every vehicle that we’ve produced, so yeah, it’s very well-known.