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At Delphi: Where The Lean Get Leaner

Although they are working the Delphi Manufacturing System hard, team members at the automotive supply company have come to realize that making improvements before equipment hits the factory floor can provide major leverage. Here's a look.
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Any company that intends to be competitive is undoubtedly operating under an operational change methodology that is causing the rethinking and redeploying of processes and resources. One approach that many companies are implementing—to a lesser or greater degree—is lean. Which is sort of like motherhood and patriotism. Who would be against either? Who would say that they aren’t for lean?

But the value of lean can be realized only to the extent that the method is methodically implemented: without depth and breadth throughout the organization, lean is thin, as in merely superficial.

Delphi Automotive personnel have long recognized the importance of lean, and have practiced the approach for the past few years. Presumably, the independence of the organization from General Motors and the necessity of competing with suppliers that have had to operate without a built-in advantage (which, arguably, GM’s business was to Delphi) have caused lean to be even more fundamental to the work that is done throughout the entire organization.

Elements of the System

Delphi Interior Systems plants (like other Delphi facilities) are undergoing a lean transformation, a manufacturing morphing that’s been occurring for the past three years with an increasing amount of rigor. They’re using the Delphi Manufacturing System (DMS), which is described in Delphi documentation as “A Manufacturing System with an implementation process that recognizes the interdependencies of its elements and drives to flow manufacturing.” The elements that are considered include: Employee Environment and Involvement (with a focus on the customer and continuous improvement; joint efforts between union and management personnel); Workplace Organization (how the employees, equipment and materials are coordinated so that there is a safe, clean efficient environment); Quality (focus on variation reduction, waste elimination, and first-time-through customer satisfaction); Operational Availability (minimizing non-productive time for operations); Material Movement (to assure on-time delivery of just what’s required). These five, which are considered not in isolation, but as interacting elements, then lead to Flow Manufacturing, which is a time-based pull system, one that is intended to quickly transform and move materials to meet specific customer requirements.

Fat Systems

Pamela A. Boyd has essentially been with Delphi since 1981 (i.e., working for organizations that have since become part of the corporation). Her current position is manufacturing planning manager for the Interior Systems Div. One of her major tasks is to aid and assist in the development and implementation of lean equipment, processes, and tools. Once upon a time, Boyd created what she calls “fat systems.” She admits that when designing equipment, “I didn’t worry about such things as part presentation and how the operator would do cycle initiation. I was the equipment jockey; I was important. I’d let them worry about things like material handling.” Note well that Boyd is not callous; she’s candid, honest. She wasn’t the exception; she was the rule.

She continues, “We don’t allow that anymore. We want all the details worked out.”

Achieving Improvements

According to Boyd, at least one aspect of lean production, U-shaped cells, has been a part of Delphi Interiors’* modus operandi since the 1980s. Other aspects of lean have been added in subsequent years. She explains that being an interiors supplier, there were (and are) highly competitive outside suppliers, so Delphi Interiors had to get better all the time to stay in the game.

“Our plants have had tremendous improvements by applying lean,” she says. The manufacturing engineers in the plants have a continuous improvement mindset and are working, continually, with the people in the facilities to drive improvements. Specific things they are working on are achieving flexibility in terms of equipment and worker capabilities; customer-focused modules or cells; one-piece or small-lot material transfer; and more. By using the DMS methodologies Delphi has measured:

20% productivity improvement
30% floor space reduction
75% quality improvement
60% improvement in inventory turns.
As everybody—at least everybody who is serious about staying in business—knows things like U-shaped cells and cross-trained operators are essential. But as has been recognized by Boyd and others within the entire Delphi organization (i.e., beyond Interiors), DMS, while important, has an inherent limitation inasmuch as it is based on existing operations. That is, people are working at improving what is. They may be changing it to something better, but let’s face it: It is mainly about modifications, not wholesale reconfiguration. The investments in tooling in equipment have been made; the machinery is set in place; the process is engineered. All of these things—and other aspects—can be tweaked, even significantly, by DMS. But that isn’t the same as starting from the proverbial clean sheet of paper.

Getting Lean Earlier

The issues of both the limitations of the Delphi Manufacturing System from the standpoint of being essentially constrained by the existing situation and the inappropriateness of “fat systems” to lean production have led Delphi to the development of what is being called Manufacturing Systems Design (MSD). The point here is that a whole lot more leverage can be applied if lean principles are applied before the product is designed and the equipment is installed—or even developed. ** “The difference between the Delphi Manufacturing System and Manufacturing System Design is really timing,” Boyd explains. “They use the same tools and have the same objectives.” But if people are thinking lean in terms of product and process development, then great advantages can be gained.

What Boyd and her colleagues work on is what is known as “lean equipment.” Which is easier said than done. Or, in some cases, even understood. The simple aspect of all this, Boyd says, is: “We”—meaning the equipment designers—“can’t give them”—meaning the people who work in the plants—“what we’ve always given them, because it won’t fit into their system. We can’t give them fat systems. They’re focused on small-lot and one-piece flow. They want to maintain inventories to meet customer demand.” They want to have equipment that permits this to happen.

“Lean” equipment means that it is right, not chintzy. Boyd notes that typically, the first reaction that manufacturing engineers who have been used to developing fat systems have when told to create a lean piece of equipment is that they “don’t paint it and don’t finish the edges. The first images that equipment engineers have is that it is ‘cheap.’” But that isn’t the case at all.

She provides an analogy that she says is sometimes used during MSD workshops: “Instead of taking a Cadillac and decontenting it to a Chevy, you’re better off starting with a Chevy”—which she describes as “your best manual method”—“and asking ‘What do I really need to automate?’” The issue is to make what’s right, what’s appropriate for the job. The big question that’s asked at the cross-functional system design workshops—which are an essential part of lean system development: “What does the operator really need?”

There is a codified list of various aspects that must be considered with regard to equipment design. This looks at things from machine guarding to maintenance requirements. Compared to conventional, historical machine design, some of the things they are looking for are somewhat radical...as in having equipment on wheels (she cites instances where there are injection molding cells set up and an ultrasonic welder is wheeled in for assembly as needed). She says that household—not industrial—power is ideal (“I say ‘110-volts’ a lot”). Although much of the equipment that is necessary to produce things such as airbags is special, by its very nature, Boyd wants off-the-shelf elements to the extent that it is possible.

Special equipment foundations have long been a characteristic of production facilities. But that’s not the case at Delphi: “We would like to have flat-floor installation.”

She adds, making one of the most astonishing statements we’ve ever heard from a manufacturing engineer in the auto industry, “The goal is to be able to set it up in someone’s garage.” It is all about efficiency and effectiveness. Not about fat monuments that sit affixed to the floor.

Boyd admits that there will always be what she calls “processing centers,” pieces of equipment that aren’t portable, that require the hydraulics or the chilled water or the foundations. She quickly points out, “But we want them to have lean characteristics, to be able to make every part, every day. To permit quick tool change. Equipment that’s simple and reliable, with minimal downtime and scrap. Equipment that’s located close to the departments where it is needed.”

Boyd also stresses, “We accept it, but we challenge it.”

Boyd cites a series of improvements that have been made through MSD, such as a nut driver for air bag manufacture that, compared to the one that it replaces, provides an investment improvement of 82%, a 70% floor space reduction, and a capacity increase of 6%. It is a piece of equipment that runs with 110-v, rather than the 440-v that the previous machine was powered by.

One interesting aspect of lean systems: “If you can get to a lower cost piece of equipment, you can get away from the emotion that drives you to optimize the use of that equipment. If it is the right amount of automation and is a simple, reliable piece of equipment, then that becomes a non-issue.” In other words, when you pay a whole lot for something, you’re going to try to eke out everything that you can from it. But if it is less costly, then there isn’t as much concern with the individual piece of equipment; the process becomes the important thing.

Does it work? Well, one piece of evidence is that the Delphi Interior Systems RIMIR occupant protection system plant in Matamoros, Mexico, received the 1999 Shingo Prize for Excellence in Manufacturing, racking up such numbers as 100% on-time delivery to customers, a 12% productivity increase in 1998 and an additional 17% improvement during the first quarter of 1999, and a 72% reduction in lead time.

But a comment that Boyd makes about an effect of lean in organizations is in some ways more to the point: “You can’t hide your problems.” Do it right, or sooner or later you may not be doing it at all.

*Although Boyd is with Delphi Interiors, for the sake of convenience we will just use the word “Delphi” to signify it. Of course, Delphi Automotive Systems—the entire corporation—is undertaking initiatives like those described here, so it is arguably appropriate and convenient.

**In addition to Manufacturing System Design, they are using Math Based Strategies, Design for Manufacturing, and Bill of Process (Delphi’s term for “Best Practices”).