Opel's revolutionary gospel: John Eisenhammer reports from Eisenach on a model for GM's future

IF THERE is a plant in eastern Germany capable of soon erasing the disdainful smirk reserved by western Germans for their counterparts in the 'colonies', it is Opel in Eisenach.

Ultra-modern, ultra-clean and ultra-Japanese, it represents the radical cure for the 'fat in management and labour conditions' of western German firms, according to David Hermann, chairman of Opel, a subsidiary of General Motors.

'It is the model for our future,' he said. Having shown how efficiently cars can be made, the disciples of lean production will spread out, taking their revolutionary gospel to the pampered and disbelieving in established Opel plants in western Germany.

No one expected the tables to be turned so quickly. But then no one expected a recession to expose deep structural problems in car manufacturing, notably a cost disadvantage of 25 per cent or more against the Japanese.

General Motors sees in Eisenach the key to restoring competitiveness to its European operations. And that means not just in western Germany, but also in Spain and Belgium, as well as Vauxhall in Britain. All face the prospect of being turned on their heads by the men in grey trousers and white shirts from Eisenach.

'This is now the nucleus for General Motors in Europe,' Peter Enderle, Opel's head of production, said. 'Our people will study how things work here, and then apply this to the firms in the west.'

More than a statement of intent, this is a threat. For it takes just over 18 hours to make an Opel Astra or Corsa in Eisenach, compared with a time in the high 20s at the Bochum plant in western Germany and the low 30s at Zaragoza in Spain.

At the same time, Eisenach has set new quality standards, producing cars with an average of six to seven defects compared with about 20 at Bochum and more than 20 at Vauxhall. Moreover, Eisenach manages to produce cars at similar costs to its Opel counterpart in Zaragoza, despite the much lower wage levels in Spain.

Eisenach offered Opel the opportunity to surmount or circumvent most of the obstacles that make Germany such a costly place to build cars. A town with a long car- manufacturing tradition, it provided a skilled but desperate workforce, a generous local administration, pliant trade unions, initially lower wages than in the west, and a greenfield site.

The outcome was the biggest single private investment in the east (more than DM1bn), and a piece of Japan as conceived by Americans, created in the city that gave the world the Wartburg. Opel's Eisenach plant will, when it reaches full capacity later this year, have 2,000 workers turning out 150,000 cars.

Eisenach's 'model-character', as Mr Enderle described it, has been achieved by an uncompromising application of Japanese methods. 'We are trying to build a car in the same way that Toyota would build it,' Jeff Bell, a Canadian adviser, said.

He is one of the key group of lean production disciples, all of whom have experience in Japanese techniques. Mr Bell came from General Motors' Cami joint-venture in Canada with Suzuki. Having designed the Eisenach plant process, the advisers' job now is to 'coach managers and teams in how lean production works'.

Everyone wears the same grey trousers and white shirts. Japanese words are used for numerous functions. Discipline and cleanliness are paramount - the place feels more like a calm department store than a car plant.

'Every Japanese trick in the book,' as Mr Bell put it, has been used to achieve Eisenach's efficiency. Workers operate in teams of six to eight. The 'division of labour between planning and production has been done away with or totally redefined,' Mr Enderle said.

Through agreements with the unions, production workers can do skilled trade work such as stopping and starting the line, changing weld tips and minor repairs. The result is just 10 maintenance staff per shift, compared with around 300 for the admittedly larger Bochum plant.

Overall, Eisenach's work space, workforce, storage space and transport capacity are around half of those in conventional plants.

Stocks next to the production line, in boxes meticulously placed within their designated spaces, are sufficient for two to three hours, with one to three days' worth in the warehouse. At Bochum the warehouse level is two to three weeks. The warehouse stock in Eisenach could be even lower, if it were not for Opel's policy of getting the Corsa underbody stamp from its Zaragoza plant, and numerous parts from Spanish suppliers.

The Eisenach production cycle is closely linked to the railway timetable. There is also a 'buffer' of only 10 cars, or 20 minutes, between one production line and another, compared with 375 cars or six hours in Bochum. This means that any fault can be discovered in 20 minutes in Eisenach, and just 10 cars need looking at, as against six hour's worth at the western German plant. Absenteeism at Eisenach is down to 3 per cent, compared with the 10 per cent common in western German plants.

The body works is 96 per cent automated, with GM robots changing their own tool heads depending on whether a Corsa or Astra is next on the same line. The workforce, mostly from the large pool of workers left after Wartburg collapsed, is excellent, according to Chris Honda, another Canadian adviser.

'They are more highly skilled than in Canada, with good motivation. The only disadvantage is a certain reluctance to take chances,' he said.

That is precisely the test that will soon be facing Opel and GM management. Achieving breakthroughs on a greenfield site is one thing; forcing them past the entrenched practices and habits of established plants in western Germany and Britain is another altogether.

'It is not going to be easy,' said Mr Enderle. 'But we know one thing. There is no choice.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Software Development Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: Product Manager - (Product Marketing, Financial Services)

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - Marke...

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Assistant

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established ...

Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links