A lean, mean, car-making machine

I’ve heard and read so much about automobile manufacturing facilities and assembly lines but never had a chance to actually see one until last Friday, when I got a chance to visit Honda’s factory in Marysville.

In the remarkable facility I saw, what used to be a hub for manufacturing motorcycles has been converted into a car-making operation – and despite all of the intricate work going on, its cleanliness was astonishing. Hallways and storage areas were clearly demarcated, while yellow stripes separated pedestrian areas from space for forklifts and trains. Raw materials are supplied in totes in the same way they’re used in the assembly lines, leaving no need for boxes or wrappers. Once used, they’re sent back for a refill. How lean is that?

Material handler
A material handler whirs past in Honda’s Marysville manufacturing facility

At the Marysville facility, workers in both shifts turn out a car every minute. In my mind, that seems like a lot of rushing, but I was surprised by how calm the assembly line really was. Every operator or group of them has a designated area on the assembly line. Every minute, as a car arrives in that area, they perform up to five activities. The car moves on to the next area, getting built bit by bit by multiple operators. A few notable characteristics:

  • Operators had all the tools that they needed right where they needed it. 
  • Parts were lined up in the same sequence as the cars arrived, i.e. red-colored door handles were ready for red cars, silver for silver cars, placed within arm’s reach.  
  • A material handler, or “water spider,” went around every 90 minutes to check on what was used up and deliver what was needed. I didn’t see a single operator searching for supplies.
  • The team leader stays in the vicinity so that if the operators need help, they are right there to assist.
  • Electronic visual boards indicated what was the expected and actual production. This gave real-time feedback to the operators and managers. If actual production was slower, the manager could start calculating and planning the number of hours and staff for overtime.
  • To break the monotony of repetitive tasks, operators switched areas in regular time intervals.
  • Changeover time on the assembly line: Zero minutes. It didn’t matter what vehicle was being made at any given moment.

 Buried in these observations are hallmarks of lean thinking that could translate in their own way to your organization.


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