Baskin Robbins' 31 Flavors and Heinz 57 don't sound like technical manufacturing jargon, but Joseph D. Spielman, head of General Motors Corp.'s giant Metal Fabricating Div., uses them often to describe the way his operation used to be.

He's referring to 31 flavors of manufacturing processes and 57 varieties of press lines. Unfortunately, they haven't blended any better on the factory floor of the GM division's 13 stamping plants than, well, ice cream and catsup. But Mr. Spielman can afford to be a little glib these days -- the worst is over.

GM's massive in-house stamping operations long have been considered one of the automaker's most troubled areas, but two years into a five-year, $850 million capital spending program, big strides in quality and efficiency are being made.

Die transfer times were reduced 68% from 1994 to 1995, and average strokes per hour, a key productivity measurement, improved 17% during the same period. According to the much-watched Harbour and Associates Inc. labor productivity study, GM Stamping achieved "excellent improvement this year, surpassing Ford and Chrysler in several key equipment performance measures." However, Japanese transplant stamping operations continue to lead in overall performance in North America.

Mr. Spielman freely admits the division still has a long way to go before it can go head-to-head with the world's best, but the operation has come a very, very long way.

GM stamping is the largest purchaser of automotive flat-rolled steel in the world. From the start, the operation was a nightmare of complexity. Established in October 1994 by GM in an effort to unify its far-flung metal bending operations, the organization employs 36,000 people at 13 "metal centers" and two separate die-management locations.

Previously, GM's stamping plants were run almost like independent businesses, and the frequent GM reorganizations since 1984 haven't helped.

"It was a little bit like hobby farming, where every group in GM was given its own stamping plant as a weekend venture. This disjointed approach drove different processes, different approaches and different "people systems," and our stamping business became more and more of an uncompetitive sideline," says Mr. Spielman.

"Instead of competitive operations from sea to shining sea, we ended up with the Baskin Robbins of manufacturing operations; 31 different flavors of safety procedures, different production processes, different material-handling systems, different measurements for quality and productivity, different technology, and the list goes on and on.

"Now, one things's for sure, if you're going to be good at car and truck manufacturing, you'd better be good at body-in-white manufacturing, and if you are going to be good at body-in-white, you had better be good in stamping," he says.

After the Metal Fabricating Div. was formed in 1994 with Mr. Spielman as General Manager (he had been General Manager of GM's Midsize Car Div.), he quickly went to work developing a well-defined production system, integrating technology and improving "people systems."

One of the first things on his agenda was attacking what he sometimes refers to as the "Heinz 57."

"We literally had 57 varieties of press configurations with different press sizes, different shut heights, different automation, different operator interface panels, and on and on."

After getting corporate approval for a massive commonization program, those 57 varieties are being whittled down to six basic "footprints" that have the same automation, controls, die-change features and shut heights. Tandem lines, transfer-press systems and every die line have to be designed to fit into one of those six systems. Every press line in GM's North American Operations will be either reconfigured or eliminated.

The commonization push has been fraught with internal politics and sometimes "pure agony" for those involved, Mr. Spielman says, but the pain is paying off:

"We built our first footprinted tandem press line in Mansfield, OH. It took about a month to debug, get up and running, and get our first good part. The second identical footprinted line, built at another plant, took us about two weeks. The third line, built at yet another plant, took us less than four hours. The equipment was common, the processes were common, and we were able to share information along the way. It does work."

Although he's very upbeat about the Metal Fabricating Div.'s progress, Mr. Spielman says the program still will take another three years to be fully implemented. And the pressure may be taking its toll on some executives.

"I was reminded of just how hard my people are working when I was talking to a member of my team and told him about a 5 o'clock meeting that was scheduled for the following day. His only question: 'a.m. or p.m.?' "