On Wednesday General Motors Corp. Vice Chairman & Chief Financial Officer John M. Devine stated that the U.S. auto industry wasn’t firing on all cylinders, but in one of the most optimistic speeches of the week, GM’s manufacturing chief points out that the automaker’s formerly troubled factory operations are running smoother than they have in years. That promises not only better, more desirable products in the future, but also brings the idea of delivering a built-to-order car to the consumer in three days much closer to reality.

“Today, the business climate is tougher than ever. But, in my opinion, the spirit throughout General Motors today is one of optimism and confidence. I believe we have momentum and are getting results,” says Gary L. Cowger, group vice president, Manufacturing and Labor Relations. He says GM is making great progress in four crucial areas: Safety, Quality, Productivity and Technology and adds that GM’s Global Manufacturing System (GMS) also is starting to hit its stride.

“That’s a far cry from the situation just a few years ago,” he admits.

Today GM’s safety record is now “the best in the auto industry on all measures,” he says.

The rest of the world also is starting to notice the fruits of GM’s quality and productivity improvement initiatives. The latest J.D. Power study of initial quality shows GM has surpassed its two domestic competitors and is closing the gap with the best Japanese producers he brags, adding that Consumer Reports, one of its toughest critics, named 11 of GM’s ’01 products as “Recommended Buys” compared with only 4 the year before.

“This summer’s Harbour Report shows us virtually closing the productivity gap with our domestic competitors and gaining fast on the toughest Japanese competitors,” he says, adding GM had double-digit improvement at 11 out of 30 assembly plants; stamping and powertrain plants also logged big improvements.

After a slow start in the early ‘90s, GM’s Global Manufacturing System also is getting in gear, Mr. Cowger says. Based on five elements: people involvement, built-in-quality, standardization, continuous improvement, and short lead times, they’re all now getting aligned and starting to click in new greenfield factories in developing markets such as Poland and China. The lessons learned are going to be applied in GM’s next two major manufacturing complexes in Lansing, MI, and Russelsheim, Germany.

Coupled with new math-based technology improvements that add speed and flexibility to manufacturing processes, “The dream of a ‘three-day car’ built-to-order – which I talked about here way back in the early ‘90s – is far closer than any of us thought possible just three years ago,” Mr. Cowger says. o