No need to have your eyes checked, and the writer of this story isn't heavily medicated.

What you're about to read is actually happening. General Motors Corp. is becoming a leader in manufacturing efficiency and technologies.

That was unthinkable only a few years ago. But the auto maker is pulling off a quantum leap for the ages. Just check out the Harbour Report released last June. GM has cut its assembly hours per vehicle from 31.59 hours in 1997 to 26.75 in 2000 — a 15% improvement. That's pulled the auto maker within an hour of domestic leader Ford Motor Co. Nissan is the most efficient with 17.37. GM posted the biggest improvement (7%) of any auto maker across all manufacturing operations — assembly, stamping, engine and transmission. It has taken the lead in transmission production, and has moved into the top spot for engine assembly among the Big Three.

GM's transformation is nearly magical. But the auto maker doesn't have David Copperfield on its payroll. Rather, the improvements boil down to three words: Global Manufacturing System (GMS). Its purpose is to maximize performance in the areas of people, safety, quality, responsiveness and cost. And while GM admits it mimics highlights of Toyota Motor Corp.'s highly regarded production system, GMS also is developing its own cost-cutting techniques and new manufacturing technologies.

GMS has gained momentum only recently, and several GM insiders credit Chairman Jack Smith with initially confronting the unglamorous and expensive task of improving the auto maker's manufacturing network during the 1990s. But if Smith started the drive to efficiency, then Chief Executive Rick Wagoner installed a supercharger because the pace has quickened remarkably within the last two years. Gary Cowger, appointed president of GM North America in November, also has made key contributions since arriving from the auto maker's Adam Opel AG unit more than three years ago. In previous manufacturing and labor positions, he patched up an awful relationship with the United Auto Workers union while pushing forward new manufacturing strategies and flexible work assignments.

The auto maker's Lansing Grand River Cadillac CTS assembly plant, set to officially open Jan. 9 and designed from scratch with GMS in mind, will be the ultimate example of GM's new manufacturing strategy. It features a “T” design, a meandering plant floor layout and a body shop that can handle any vehicle architecture.

But GMS is doing a wonderful job of infusing its principles through existing assembly plants and around older workers accustomed to older ways. It is being used to one extent or another by every GM plant in the U.S. “I'm very pleased with the progress we have made, not only in North America, but globally on the implementation of the GM Global Manufacturing System,” says Cowger. “Rick and I will be up in Lansing in early January, and you'll get to see a complete representation of it. For those of you who have been to the Detroit-Hamtramck plant, it's at about 80%. So this works for brownfields and greenfields, and that's the power of it.”

The age and layout of GM's facilities largely doesn't matter because it's the factory workers who are the biggest contributor to GMS. GM factory personnel are performing multiple tasks and have attitudes that most observers associate with non-union employees at Asian assembly plants. Job rotation is increasing, and workers are taking on more responsibilities. At the Pontiac, MI, Metal Fabricating Center, for example, the UAW local has improved efficiency by reducing job classifications at Pontiac Metal Fab to eight from 57 in the early 1980s.

GMS encourages workers to suggest improvements in manufacturing efficiency. They can stop the assembly line if a production issue arises. They are grouped in teams of 10 or so with one troupe leader, and they meet weekly to discuss issues at their facility. They order parts to the assembly line. “Change, at first, is always hard to sell. But once the employees bought into the idea that it was going to make their job easier, everyone welcomed the new responsibilities and changes,” says Jim Clark, chairman International Union of Electronic Workers Automotive Conference board, which represents workers at GM's sport/utility vehicle assembly plant in Moraine, OH.

Employee involvement is largely intertwined with the andon board and cord, both Japanese labor concepts. The board hangs from the plant rafters and informs the workforce of actual vs. scheduled production numbers, what type of problems might be slowing production and where they are occurring. “Different colors and different numbers depict certain things that need to take place by team members,” says John Crabtree, plant manager at GM's Flint (MI) Engine South facility, which opened in 2000 and is the first all-new GMS engine factory.

The andon cord runs along the assembly line; it can be pulled by any worker on the line to stop the conveyor if a production problem crops up. At the Detroit-Hamtramck Cadillac/Buick factory, Plant Manager Joe Ponce speeds up the conveyor to make three extra vehicles every 60 minutes so workers don't worry about falling behind the hourly pace of 70 units per hour if they pull the andon cord.

GMS stresses standardization, so job rotation is possible. It requires a plant floor to be extremely orderly. If you have kids, your home probably isn't as tidy. At each workstation, floor outlines show where a worker should be at the beginning and end of a task, as well as three quarters of the way through. If a mark is missed, the task is being performed too slowly.

There also are certain locations along the line where vehicles are “parked” during a shift change. Believe it or not, a vehicle completely slipping through a workstation at shift change used to be a problem. “If you don't do your job right, it snowballs to the next person, and the next work station can't do their job right. By the time you get to the end, you've got one hell of a repair to make,” says Dave French, Detroit-Hamtramck assistant manager, general assembly.

Components are kept close to the conveyor — each step away from the line is time added to completing a job. Tools hang from trailing trolleys. Ergonomics is a factor, too. Depending on the task, a movable platform called a skillet may raise or lower the vehicle to make it easier for personnel to work.

Communication aisles 12 ft. (3.7m) wide marked by bright yellow lines for worker safety are part of the GMS plant layout. The broad aisles improve parts delivery — which is critical for a system that keeps stock at a minimum and eschews clutter. At Detroit-Hamtramck a new system, called the Radio Frequency Initiative, electronically sends parts orders from workstations on the line to forklifts equipped with monitors. The hi-lo driver sees the order, picks up the requested parts and delivers the components to the workstation. The RFI has cut in-plant forklift mileage to 400 miles (640 km) from 1,700 miles (2,700 km) because the hi-los no longer constantly drive around the plant checking parts bins. By better managing parts, the plant reduced premium freight hauling and cut transportation costs from $6.5 million to $1.8 million.

With money offered as incentives, workers are bombarding plant management with ways to improve the assembly process. During the third quarter, employees made 44,000 suggestions. The Detroit-Hamtramck plant, for example, has saved more than $900,000 from suggestions.

At Moraine, a process involving the rear axle was taking 2 seconds too long. Employees couldn't hold the components and install the lower and upper control arm links simultaneously. So they had to walk back to their workstation too many times. A few employees suggested using a small cart, used elsewhere in the factory, that would move along with workers via a conveyor traction system and provide a place to put the components. Now employees make one trip to the line for each rear axle and stay there. The extra two seconds have been eliminated, and the team of workers that made the suggestion are up for a considerable monetary award.

Besides assembly plants, GMS is helping GM's other manufacturing operations. The Metal Fabricating Div., once a prime contributor to the auto maker's overall manufacturing inefficiency, has reduced “spills” by 51% so far in 2001 to 21 from year-ago's 46. (Spill is a manufacturing term for when more than five of the same components shipped from one plant are unusable for production.)

Factory footprints and presses are being “commonized.”

“Our presses used to be all different. We couldn't send a press from the Grand Rapids (MI) facility to Indianapolis and make it run within hours; it'd take weeks,” recalls Tom Brady, the division's manufacturing manger.

While improving, Metal Fab also has reduced expenses by about $1 billion since 1994 to some $3 billion this year. It's also saved $100 million in 2001 by reducing overtime — a result of constantly improving efficiency, says Brady. Another $10 million has been saved in 2001 from employee suggestions.

Here's one more suggestion, for GM's competitors: It's time to admit that the fat man is tap dancing.