days 6, 7 & 8
Hello from Monroeville (Pittsburgh)!
I decided to give my fingers a rest for a couple days after the last long missive, so I'm writing one leg away from home.
On Thursday we left at 8am in brisk, 36 degree weather for the GM Assembly Plant in Flint, MI. It took a little less than an hour and a half to get there, but the drive was uneventful. We'd yet to figure out what direction people commute in in the Detroit metro area, because we'd never encountered what in any other city would be recognized as rush hour traffic. I don't know whether this is further evidence of the sparseness of the population, or whether my expectations of what hour the rush is in are based on office hours rather than shift hours.
On arriving at the GM Flint Assembly plant, we were instructed to park in the first lot near the Rotunda if we had a GM car, or continue down the road a bit to the larger lot and walk back if we didn't. We also had to note the make of our car when we signed in at the security desk. I knew from Mona at the Convention & Visitor's Bureau that we would be joining a tour by cart rather than the usual walking tour, but I didn't know what kind of group to expect. It turned out to be another group of three: a woman whose husband worked at the plant and her retired parents. Her dad had worked for GM for a couple years starting in 1947, the year the Flint plant opened. After watching a safety video, we met our tour guide—a UAW member who worked in Quality. If a worker on the line noticed that a bolt didn't line up to a hole quite right, or a clip didn't click when a pipe was slid into place, or his rag snagged on a headlamp as he wiped it, for example, our guide's job was to check other parts in the batch for similar defects and determine whether it was a one-off problem, a bad lot, or an even bigger problem. We were also joined for part of the tour by a part supplier rep who would be our guide's first point of contact if the defect was widespread (her company produced taillights and other light covers, I think).
Anyway, it was a completely different experience from the one we had at the Ford Rouge Plant. That was a real working factory, too, but the experience was more Disney-like: We were struck by how similar it was to waiting in line for Test Track, with its videos of plant workers describing their jobs and computer displays of different processes—whereas this one felt grittier and more real. It was stunning, actually; we spent the first 10 minutes saying "wow" over and over as our guide drove us right up to the area where the robots were welding the doors, along the different parts of the assembly line, through the area where the truck bodies with paint problems were stored, and so on. It was just plain fascinating, and our guide's perspective on how well "union" and "management" worked together or didn't (we gathered that relations were pretty good at this plant, but I was still a bit surprised by the us/them) was especially interesting. He pointed out ideas for changes that the union guys had come up with (so you can get the full picture, I should mention that all of this commentary was shouted above the noise of the factory, which included heavy metal music blaring from several stations), explained what the colors and symbols on the status board meant, and described the different jobs and how workers rotate through them. We heard about sequencing, which allows two different trucks in various body styles with different options to be produced on a single line, and how the union fought to have it done onsite instead of having it outsourced in order to both preserve jobs and increase efficiency and flexibility; how many seconds out of each minute various jobs should take, and how if you want to blow your nose, you have to work a little faster in order to build up an extra few seconds of slack in which to blow; and why we couldn't go into Paint—namely, because to even get a job in Paint, you have to go through skin and hair tests to make sure your body chemistry doesn't cause you to shed excessively. (Shedding skin or hair, or using certain shampoos or lotions, can cause paint defects.)
We learned about "float" (what Al knew as "variance" in Lean terminology, and I didn't know by name but by practice, as I determine my team's capacity and assignments), and we saw with our own eyes what happened when there were problems on the line and float got used up (Paint was apparently having issues, and a couple sections of the line stopped for a couple minutes and blocked others. This, we were told, was when you took the opportunity to run to the bathroom if you couldn't wait for your 14-minute break.)
I'm realizing as I write this that I'm never going to be able to capture it all for you, especially typing with two fingers on an iPad; I'll have to write more about it when I get home, or tell you in person. We haven't stopped talking about it ourselves. I think the GM tour was more fascinating for me and Al than for the Beaner, who had trouble hearing and parsing what our guide was saying, though he says it was "educational, fun, and tiring" (he doesn't seem to realize that a two-hour walking tour of the enormous, two-floor plant would have been much MORE tiring—we lucked out by joining a tour with two people in their 80s). There was plenty to look at for all of us, and plenty to think and talk about for me and Al. I'm really glad that we got to see both a Ford plant and a GM plant (or just two different plants, period), and the opportunity to hear the union perspective on everything from the organizational structure of the plant to how decisions on plant closures are made was eye-opening and thought-provoking. (I am not a fan of unions—the adversarial relationship between union and management frustrates me, and I think that the us vs. them mentality can lead to bad decisions—but I think this is the first time I've been able to hear so much detail about a union member's job, aside from my discussions with Val about being a teacher. I absolutely respect the hard work that these people do, and acknowledge that I couldn't do it.)
After leaving the plant, we followed Mona's recommendation for getting "the full plant experience" by having lunch at Capitol Coney. As Mona explained:
"The many auto plants that sprouted up in the Flint area paved the way for a particular type of restaurant, known as a 'Coney Island'. These 'coneys' were famous for the hot dogs they served by the same name. They sprouted up around the plants because factory workers needed lunch in a hurry when on break. A Flint style 'coney' is a Vienna hot dog served with mustard, coney [meat] sauce and chopped onions. It was almost always served with French fries and a coke."
We had seen a few restaurants with "Coney Island" signs on them around Detroit and were puzzled by them, since if you're not actually AT Coney Island, it's an adjective—usually in front of "hot dog". We kept saying to ourselves, Coney Island *what*? After hearing Mona's explanation, suddenly we were able to read Coney Island as a noun. :-)
We then drove around Flint a bit, trying to get a sense of the place. We went to the Farmer's Market (where I got what seemed at first to be a normal reusable shopping bag with the Flint Farmer's Market logo, but turned out to be a bag designed specifically for farmer's market shopping—narrow and long, with credit-card like pockets on the ends for herbs and flowers), stopped at a local coffee shop, and took photos of interesting signs before heading back to Detroit.
We did see something resembling rush hour on a clogged exit ramp to 696, which our GPS wanted us to take, but by this time I was familiar enough with the area to know that we could stay on 75, and the traffic stayed moderate and at the 70mph speed limit until about a mile from Downtown. We took the Beaner swimming, and then I went to my Detroit Red Wings game while the Beaner and Al went to the Brazilian steakhouse we'd failed to eat at on Monday. This turned out to be a good choice, since it was really best suited to meat eaters—I would have had a very expensive salad. :-) The Beaner and Al really enjoyed it, and I enjoyed my great seat at the Red Wings game.
As we were going to bed on Thursday night, Al discovered that there was a Chrysler museum that we'd missed—and it was even on the way back from Flint, the opposite direction we'd need to go the next morning. We decided to go anyway on Friday before leaving. We both wished we'd known about it on Wednesday, when we didn't do anything particularly interesting, but going on Friday didn't really impinge on our plans. One of the volunteers at the museum gave us an intro to Chrysler history and the cars on display, and then we pretty much had the place to ourselves. It was the perfect spot to end our Detroit automotive tour, and was as educational in its own way as the Ford museum and plant tour and the GM plant tour had been. With Chrysler we got a bit more of the engineering and design perspective, as well as the complicated history of the brand.
Going a bit out of our way to cram in one more thing, weirdly, helped make our exit from Detroit calmer rather than more frantic. The simple decision to take the time to do this set the tone for the day, and the three-hour plus drive to Cleveland wasn't that bad. We checked into our hotel near Progressive Field around 4:30, and I took the Beaner swimming (I actually got in this time) for an hour. Al ordered room service, and I walked about half a mile to get sushi rolls for me and the Beaner, and then we watched History Channel shows until I conked out at around 9:30.
In the morning I took the Beaner down for breakfast so Al could sleep in, and then we packed up the car and walked over to Progressive Field, where the gates would open at 11:30 for the 1:05 game. It was a chilly 45 degrees, but it was sunny in the outfield, where we stood to watch the Blue Jays' batting practice. I was glad I brought both scarves and my gloves (the warming kind, not the baseball kind), because our seats behind home plate stayed in the shade for the 5 innings we watched. It was a really fun experience; I quite liked that ballpark—it had a very low-key, homey vibe, while offering modern food choices (including gluten free options)—and our seats were great.
We left the park around 2:30 and walked back to the hotel to get our car, then set the GPS for the Whole Foods in Pittsburgh, about 2 hours away (we listened to the game on AM radio until several miles into PA, where we lost the signal—almost, but not quite long enough to to hear the end of the game, which stretched to 12 innings). We got there around 5, got dinner items to bring back to our hotel, and then returned to the same Hampton Inn we stayed at on our way to Detroit.
The Beaner is now thrashing about on the pull-out sofa in our room after an hour and a half of swimming followed by dinner in the room and a few episodes of American Restoration. I am sitting on my right hand and and pecking with my left, as my right hand went numb about 30 minutes ago (I should invest in an external keyboard for this thing for our next trip). We'll be back in Philly tomorrow afternoon!
Sent from autocorrect-happy iPad