VILLERON, France - Delphi Automotive Systems' U.S. plants may be poster children for poor productivity and antiquated work rules. But outside North America, beyond the current reach of the United Auto Workers union, the General Motors Corp. subsidiary is cleaning up its act.

In early July Delphi Europe showed off its Chassis Systems plant in Villeron, 19 miles (30 km) outside Paris, where it says Japanese-style lean manufacturing techniques are allowing it to produce more than a million brake components annually in a fraction of the space of its old operations and with 20% fewer workers.

Starting up in August 1996, the plant - which makes power brakes, calipers and proportioning valves - now is hitting its stride and looking to fill a large area of empty plant floor with production for a non-GM customer.

Delphi Europe already is ahead of Delphi's North American operations in terms of diversifying its customer base. About 47% of its sales are outside GM (and its European subsidiaries such as Adam Opel AG). It has 38,000 employees in 63 plants throughout Europe and 5,000 employees and 10 factories in France alone.

Delphi decided in 1995 to close its plant in Gennevilliers and move production to a new facility here. The old plant, which dates back to 1925, had turned into a white elephant. High taxes, maintenance costs and low productivity made it non-competitive.

So Delphi purchased the plant in Villeron - originally built for a pharmaceutical manufacturer - in early 1995. After completing expansion work in August 1996, it gradually shifted personnel and equipment from the old plant to the new over six months.

Delphi says it made the move without losing any production. It also reduced the workforce through early retirements - and without major scuffles with the five unions representing workers at the two plants.

Capacity of the 181,000-sq.-ft. (16,800-sq.-m) factory is 1.3 million brake components annually, about the same as the old plant, which is almost five times larger.

Delphi officials say no miracles were involved in the productivity enhancements. Villeron has some new computer-numerically controlled (CNC) machine tools and a few other pieces of advanced equipment, but most of the productivity increases were achieved by implementing basic lean manufacturing techniques: just-in-time parts delivery, rearranging current equipment into more efficient work cells, and eliminating production bottlenecks.

Average age of employees after the early retirements now is about 43. Hourly workers earn an average of about $1,650 (FF10,000) per month (compared with France's minimum wage of about $1,070 [FF6500] per month), says spokeswoman Frederique Le Greves. Absenteeism is an impressive 6%, slightly higher than the 5% average for France, but similar to rates at U.S. Big Three assembly plants.