So Far, So Smooth: GM’s Re-Opening Is Going Well

New Covid-19 protocols are protecting—and being embraced by—employees, safety head tells Chief Executive summit.

General Motors is finding the restart of auto production “unbelievably smooth” in its recovery from the Covid-19 shutdown, with its extensive health protocols so far preventing transmission of the virus, and its 35,000 North American factory workers adapting well to new hindrances including wearing masks, cleaning break tables and keeping their distance from one another.

“People get it and understand it and believe in the protocols and accept them,” Jim Glynn, GM’s vice president of worker safety, told the Chief Executive Smart Manufacturing Virtual Summit this week. “They know that it’s just the way things are right now. It’s been surprising to me how quickly people have adapted and accepted things. And they’re happy to do it.”

A huge part of GM’s enthusiasm at the moment is that, after a thorough and careful communication and introduction of many stiff new protocols across its North American plant network, “We haven’t had one worker-to-worker transmission of the virus yet,” Glynn reported. “It may happen,” he said, but so far this particular zero-sum game “indicates our protocols are effective.”

GM, via Glynn and Chairman and CEO Mary Barra, has been liberally spreading advice on what they learned before launching the re-opening protocols, via a 48-page “playbook” that has been adopted by many of its suppliers and other companies. At the same time, Glynn stressed, GM has been learning best practices from other companies – and from its own mistakes and refinements.

For example, while GM’s new safety protocols called for each worker to don a mask before entering the factory, the company had to make some adjustments in scaling up its methods from initial experimentation in Kokomo, Indiana, where GM began producing medical ventilators a few weeks ago, to its huge assembly plants.

“Having a couple hundred people entering a work site” as in Indiana “is one set of challenges,” Glynn explained. “But having 1,000 people do that is a whole ‘nother level of challenges. So we had to rethink our entry procedure and break bottlenecks.” Factory managers evolved from handing out masks to workers one at a time to hanging them on a pegboard, where entering workers could grab them.

“But then some people didn’t feel safe about that,” Glynn said. “Then someone said, ‘We need something like a napkin dispenser for masks.’ So someone ran to the cafeteria – which of course is closed  — and got a napkin dispenser, and we learned how to fold the masks just right so that they pop out and people can just grab one at a time as they come in.

“So it’s one thing to have the protocols in place, but it’s another thing to make them effective.”

Glynn said that another key to GM’s success so far has been Barra’s insistence that local plant managers, not their health and safety staffers, lead the welcome and re-indoctrination of workers as they return to the plants. “Supervisors greeted people coming back, passed out masks, squirted out hand sanitizer, answered questions, broke down barriers,” Glynn said. “The leadership of the plants gave the safety briefings and explained what’s different about the workplace and how the virus lives and spreads and about our protocols that are in place.

“Then they listened to people’s concerns, demonstrated care and empathy,” he said. “People want to know their concerns are being heard and resolved.”

Among worker concerns that GM addressed, for instance, was how clean is too clean. GM plants introduced sweeping new cleaning requirements for break rooms and other areas where workers congregate, as well as for individual work areas, and have been loudly and clearly communicating those steps to employees.

“But a great lesson we learned right away is that people want to take control of their own cleaning sometimes,” Glynn said. “So we have built that into our schedules: The first 10 minutes of every shift, people clean their work areas to their satisfaction. It gives people some control of this invisible virus and their [work] lives. It’s extremely important.”

And consider concerns some workers expressed about factory ventilation systems, which never had been a worry pre-Covid-19. “People would ask, ‘Aren’t we just recirculating the virus? How much air is from the outside and how much is inside air? Can our filters capture any droplets [carrying the virus] and filter that out?,’” Glynn said. GM was ready with reassuring answers to all of those questions, he noted.

“But it showed that we need to anticipate new concerns that were never there before and to plan for that and to react to it and build it into the communications process,” he said.