Gerald Johnson, EVP of Global Manufacturing, believes that technology-powered production agility holds the key to a rapid realization of the company’s “Zero Crashes, Zero Emissions, Zero Congestion” vision.
“The decisions I participate in affect jobs and the well-being of families. I’m glad to carry that as a responsibility.”
Gerald Johnson, EVP, GM
Founded in 1908 as a holding company in Flint, Michigan, by William C. Durant, General Motors grew through acquisition in its early years, combining the Buick Motor Company with Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Oakland (later known as Pontiac), the Reliance Motor Truck Company, and, later, the Chevrolet Motor Company.
Beginning in the 1920s under the presidency of Alfred P. Sloan, GM established the practice of focusing each automotive brand on a specific buyer market segment, creating what GM called a “ladder of success”. The Chevrolet brand, for example, was targeted to entry-level buyers, while those at the pinnacle of success in their careers bought Cadillacs. Tying together the various automotive brands were shared components and a common corporate management approach.
Today, GM is writing the next chapter in its history as it transitions to an all-electric vehicle future, symbolized by the re-christening of its historic Detroit Hamtramck plant as Factory Zero. The plant’s new name represents GM’s vision of the future, captured in the phrase “Zero Crashes, Zero Emissions, Zero Congestion”.
Gerald Johnson, GM’s Executive Vice President of Global Manufacturing, is charged with helping to make that future vision a reality not only at Factory Zero but eventually across GM’s entire global manufacturing footprint. Last year, Johnson led GM’s effort to rapidly respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by producing life-saving ventilators, masks, and other PPE, an orchestration of people, processes, technology, and partners that will be instructive as GM works toward its future vision. Johnson’s work earned him MLC’s Manufacturing Leader of the Year award in 2020.
In our latest Dialogue with an industry thought leader, Johnson talks with MLC Co-founder David R. Brousell about the manufacturing implications of its move into an electric vehicle future, the importance of creating agility in production operations with advanced technologies, what GM’s response to the pandemic taught the company, and what industry leadership needs to focus on in the years ahead.
Q: What excites you most about your role as Executive Vice President of Global Manufacturing at General Motors?
A: What excites me most about this role is how many people I get to help. My responsibilities are for the safety, the well-being, the capability, and the performance of more than 100,000 people around the globe. It’s always been our priority to make sure everyone comes to work and returns home safely, which has obviously been particularly expanded upon due to the pandemic. But, beyond that, it’s the decisions and conversations that I participate in that determine and affect jobs and the well-being and economic future of families. I carry that as a responsibility, of course, but I’m also glad to carry that responsibility. In some respects, I trust myself to try and keep that front-of-mind while I’m making decisions.
With Factory Zero, a lot has changed. At $2.2 billion, it will have the greatest single investment of any operation in GM.
The other piece is that a lot of people join General Motors because they aspire to grow –individually, personally, and career-wise. So, when I talk about the capability of our organization, I also am thrilled to see young, talented STEM students come into the organization, expand their innovative and technological skills, as well as become people leaders and teachers and then grow into phenomenal careers. I’ve got almost 40 years with General Motors. I’ve had the opportunity to see people come in and actually matriculate into some pretty senior roles in the company, and that means the world to me.
The last one is performance. Manufacturing is known because we perform, and we know we perform because you can measure us seven ways to Sunday, whether we’re talking quality, safety, maintenance schedule, or cost performance. I like our organization to be able to stand up at the end of a quarter, end of a year and realize, ‘Hey, we got something done and that mattered to the corporation and the success of the corporation.’ So, it’s a lot of fun.
Q: You brought up the pandemic. Certainly, 2020 was an extraordinary year. But apart from the pandemic, what are the key things that keep you up at night?
A: The pandemic aside, I’m always concerned about the fact that some of the work we do has risk attached to it. You never want to get a phone call that says someone lost a limb or lost a life doing work for GM. I’m proud and appreciative of the fact that we haven’t had that phone call in several years now, and that’s the result of a lot of work on safety culture and a lot of good, honest discipline from every employee, as they do their work every day.
Aside from that, the things that keep me awake at night are the decisions that are going to affect things three or five years down the road – things that you decide upon today, based on what we know today, but are not sure of because the world changes so quickly. So, a decision frame today may seem right, in context today, and may not be right, in context, tomorrow. Sometimes I think about that, locking in now, because it does take us three years, sometimes, to see the result of a decision that we’ve made.
Q: I think about that a lot, too. I say to myself, ‘Rarely do we make decisions based on certainty; we mostly make decisions based on probability.’
A: Exactly right, Dave, which means there’s a possibility that we were wrong.
Q: In October, you received the MLC’s Manufacturing Leader of the Year Award for the work you and GM did to rapidly respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and produce much-needed ventilators and masks. What were the most important lessons learned from that experience?
A: First of all, I am honored that the MLC thought enough of what we’ve done in the last year. I can assure you we didn’t do it for recognition, but it’s always good to realize that someone saw what we did and appreciated how much work and effort went into it. I think our learning, what was very intentionally transferable, is that when we integrate our teams well, they iterate and solve problems faster than we thought they could be solved.
“The things that keep me up at night are the decisions that are going to affect things three or four years down the road…”
In the case of the ventilator, where we went from an idea on a phone call to actually producing and shipping our first ventilator in 30 days, it’s the greatest example of the application of technology we have, of skills we have. [The effort spanned] the whole value chain — from engineering, supplier, and purchasing and sourcing, to manufacturing operations, to people raising their hand to come in and learn how to build ventilators, all overlapping with IT systems, digital process drawings, and more.
We coined the phrase “Ventilator Speed” to remind us of that moment, which we’re all very proud of. We know every ventilator we produced saved a life and maybe several. It reminds us how fast we can move when we see a clear goal, a clear direction, and we apply all that we know via technology and people-skill sets to work collectively and urgently. We can do great things.
We’re applying it, quite frankly, to our electric vehicle (EV) programs. We have now shrunk the vehicle development process using that mentality – how we overlap, integrate, and allow our teams to function much more efficiently.
Q: GM’s vision of the future is built around the phrase: “Zero Crashes, Zero Emissions, Zero Congestion”. It’s a concept that invokes safety, sustainability, and greater transportation efficiency. What does it mean for how GM will organize and conduct factory production operations going forward?
A: “Zero Crashes” is an extrapolation of our focus on safety, whether we’re talking employee safety or customer safety. There are lives being lost on our highways every day. We think we can affect that with good technology and good processing, and we want to do that for society.
The second piece, “Zero Emissions”, is wrapped around a lot of work and improvement in internal combustion engine (ICE) technology. But the thrust of it is around our future of electric vehicles and how we fill a portfolio that addresses the functionality, the aesthetics, and the beauty that people will come to expect from our vehicles, and in an electric vehicle propulsion system that gets them there with zero emissions.
And then the last one, “Zero Congestion”, really speaks to innovation and automation, our efforts around autonomous. Someday, you and I will be picked up at our house with a vehicle that has no driver. It will take us to work, go off to do 10 other things, come back and pick us up, take us to the grocery store, and then drive off to do many other things. And all the while, we will have full use to safely do other things while we’re in that vehicle, just as if we were being chauffeured. That’s the future that we’re laying out.
That plays out in our manufacturing. First of all, under “Zero Emissions”, it’s not just in the vehicles; it’s also our commitment to renewable energy. We’ve already committed to sourcing 100 percent of our U.S. facilities with renewable energy by 2030, and all global facilities by 2040. All DTE-supplied GM facilities in southeast Michigan, including Factory Zero, will be powered by renewable energy by 2023. That’s a journey that we’re on. We’ve started and each year, over the next decade or so, we’re going to make significant strides to make that true for all our sites, working with our energy providers as well.
The other piece already in place is that we want to be 90% diversion from landfills and incineration in all of our facilities, where there’s nothing that’s being produced that’s not being recycled, reused, repurposed or composted, while supporting the reduction of waste both upstream and downstream the manufacturing process. That includes, quite frankly, our battery technology that will be in the vehicles and a lot of the materials that will be in our vehicles as well.
We’re going to make sure Factory Zero enables us to learn how to further update existing facilities. It will be the model for future opportunities.
This affects us, from an operations standpoint, because we are now in the business of cell production in the joint venture we have in Ohio. We are building battery modules. We will build battery assemblies and integrate the battery electric propulsion into our vehicles, and then final assembly. We’re owning that whole value chain because we wanted to be sure that we can apply all of our skills, all of our technology, and our great people, as well as integrate ourselves and own our own problems, so that we can stay on course to what’s going to be an exciting but extremely fast execution of EV technology. Of course, Factory Zero is kind of our lead-in with that.
Q: I’m going to get to Factory Zero in just a moment. But, first, in November of last year, GM made a major announcement about all electric vehicles, committing to 30 new global electric vehicles by 2025 built upon a modular propulsion system and a global EV platform powered by proprietary Ultium batteries. What is the manufacturing strategy that supports the plan? And is manufacturing an electric vehicle different than manufacturing a gasoline engine-powered vehicle?
A: The short answer is yes. The marriage might not be as obvious because when we marry the propulsion system in a vehicle assembly plant to the body structure and then follow through, the follow-through for all of that is pretty much the same. We’ll put seats in, new doors on it, and paint and technology, like we would in a gas vehicle. That marriage is different, but it’s truly the upstream worker, which is why, again, we would invest in cell manufacturing. Our concern is that that will be a critical bottleneck. We want to own it and we want to be able to manage it.
A lot of innovation also goes into the structure that you have to put around that battery pack, which changes how we build in the assembly plant in what we marry up to. So, there’s a ton of differences upstream, from the propulsion system back, that comes as a package, albeit different, that we marry together in our vehicle assembly plant. Of course, it enables a lot of increased technology. It’s a very different value stream for us to manage, but we own all the critical points to innovate.
Manufacturing for our country is a competitive advantage that enables us to respond to things yet unseen.
Q: Have you completely mapped out what the value stream looks like at this point?
A: To the earlier point about certainty and probability, I don’t know everything, but I’m working through risks and probabilities.
We do have a plan with what we know today. We have a great partnership with LG on cell manufacturing. We’re going to leverage their learnings, their background, and their knowledge as we start up that operation, as we also learn and commit resources there. We do have a footprint strategy for all the components and the new electric motor drivetrain elements – the battery, sub–assembly work, and module work; all of that has been mapped out. We do know how we’re going to put together these EVs, as we go forward with Factory Zero being the lead and with the EV Hummer that we’ve already announced, with more to come.
Q: Let’s turn now to Factory Zero. In January of 2020, GM announced a $2.2 billion investment in its Detroit Hamtramck assembly plant to produce all electric trucks and SUVs. On October 16, you rechristened the facility as Factory Zero. What’s going to be different about Factory Zero, in terms of how it makes cars and vehicles, how it is configured, the extent to which it may be digital as compared to other GM plants today?
A: Detroit Hamtramck and Factory Zero, as we just renamed it, carries with it a long history. You probably are aware that, some 113 years ago, GM started with a guy by the name of William Durant, in a factory up in Flint, Michigan, that we call, affectionately, “Factory One.” This is where the transition from horse and buggy to automotive combustion engines began. We believe that, 100 years from now, we’ll look back and recognize Detroit Hamtramck/Factory Zero as a turning point for this industry as well.
Now, a portion also connects to our Zero-Zero-Zero strategy mission, and it’s most reflective of what manufacturing will look like as we execute that mission. In addition to the technology, what is really important for manufacturing as we go on this journey is our contribution to add agility. As we discussed earlier, we’re working on probabilities of what the curve and acceleration will look like for EVs in the marketplace, as consumers digest, accept the idea of this new propulsion, and all that comes with it. We’re confident that there’s an inflection. That inflection can be at 30 degrees, 60 degrees, or something greater. In manufacturing, we have to help marketing and, quite frankly, our customers by balancing ICE production and EV production as we make this transition.
This window, this decade that we’re in between now and 2030, is a transition, where we have to be able to do both, do both well, and do both in volumes that customers are going to need. That’s going to require extra agility for us, in many cases, and allow us to enter a market segment with both options and opportunities so that consumers can make their choices, and so that we can adapt our production operations to match.
Now with Factory Zero, a lot has changed. While the body will generally come together as a body shop does today, we have the most up-to-date paint shop that’s being put in place there. It’s what we call a modular paint shop, because that gives us the greatest amount of agility to adjust volumes and adjust how we bring product through the paint shop. When we match that with modular assembly operations, versus one main chain or one main line as we do today, there’s a certain amount of flexibility you can create with one line. There’s more flexibility that we can do with modular assembly, which allows us to segregate the assembly of the different vehicle platforms in one assembly plant and adjust the volumes to a greater flexibility. So, that’s what’s going to be different in Factory Zero.
At $2.2 billion, it will have the greatest single investment of any operation. On my last walk-through, there wasn’t much to see, because we initially had cleared all the floors. There was nothing there then, except pillars and wide-open space. That’s going to allow us, of course, to install the most optimized and efficient conveyance, modular assembly, all-new paint shop, and all the modules that are going to be used to allow us to assemble, in sequence, the vehicles as they come through the shop.
We are going to have 5G. We need 5G technology in that plant because we need the bandwidth. We need the capability for how we’re going to digitize our manufacturing operation, for all the data analytics that we’re going to enable so that we can, more efficiently and effectively, troubleshoot, problem-solve, and self-diagnose. We’re so excited about what Factory Zero is going to look like and how much of our latest and greatest thoughts are going to be embedded in it.
“I think one of the key leadership skills today will be the ability to look ahead, learn, and prepare your organization for change as a standard model.
Q: It sounds like you’re going down to the studs. What’s the timeframe for completing it? When are you going to fling open the doors to Factory Zero?
A: We have gone to the studs. We’ve committed that we’re going to have a product out by the end of 2021 and we’re still on that timeline. This will be one of the fastest executions of an all-new product that we’ve ever done.
Q: Is it your intention that Factory Zero will be a model for other, both new and existing, factories?
A: Yes, we’re going to make sure Factory Zero enables us to learn how to further update existing facilities with capability and it will become the model for opportunities where we’re going to do a complete clean out, clear out, and restart. We don’t do that very often. We reuse most of our infrastructure or we try to. That’s just being capital efficient. But we will learn where there are times and opportunities to turn over new capital and we’ll take the learnings from Factory Zero and apply them there.
Q: When do you think you’ll have enough data to take what you’ve learned in the construction and operation of Factory Zero and start seeding other factories with those concepts?
A: We’re going to go back to probabilities. There are certain things right now that we know that we’re putting into Factory Zero and, because we have a global, central manufacturing engineering organization, those technologies are already being considered for future programs. Our program timeframe is anywhere from three to four years in advance. What we’re doing right now in Factory Zero, we’re also positioning for other programs as they come through that pipeline as well, into one of our other facilities.
Q: Would it be correct to assume that Factory Zero will be highly automated, that you’re going to use advanced robots, including collaborative robots, in the facility and some of them may be powered by AI?
A: aThat would be a fair assumption. We will amp up our robotics and our automation to reflect the technology that’s available today, which does include collaborative robots, per se, and further digitization and artificial intelligence and vision systems, et cetera. Yes, it will reflect a high level of technological advancement over some of our current facilities.
Q: Let’s now talk about the future of leadership in the manufacturing industry. What key leadership skills and competencies do you feel that senior industry executives, not just at GM, need to adopt to be successful with the transition to the digital model of manufacturing?
A: In GM, we talk about certain cultural behaviors that we want to advocate and recognize and build inside the organization. To your specific question, I think the behavior that we often talk about is called “Look Ahead.” I think one of the key leadership skills today will be the ability to look ahead, learn, and prepare your organization for change as a standard model. Then, how do you digitize and use data successfully so that an organization can accept change faster than it has in the past?
We, as leaders, have to look down the road and, again, to our earlier point, assess probabilities of where technology is headed and how that technology connects to it, enables, or innovates past a problem that we don’t understand today, how to improve a bottleneck or something that’s keeping us from expanding our capabilities and pulling it forward. It’s another advancement of the idea of being a learning organization. You have to really be forward-looking and place your bets on technologies and pulling them forward faster than before.
Q: Lastly, if you had to identify one watchword or catchphrase to describe the future of manufacturing, what would it be?
A: I’m going to cheat and make it two, but there’s one core word, and that’s agility; I just throw extreme in front of it. We used to talk about flexibility. Flexibility implies how easily you can make change. Agility adds to it not only how easily you can make change, but how well you can perform in the midst of change. That’s how I see agility. I think technology and innovation is only as good as it allows us to be agile in how we address the future, how we address the issues and challenges of the day, and how we look and consider what’s possible.
With this eye for agility, my catchphrase, if you will, is one that I use with my team: Manufacturing as a competitive advantage. It’s a realization that manufacturing is still a critical capability for the country, and for any business that produces hard assets for people. I think, within General Motors, our Global Manufacturing Team should and can become a competitive advantage. In fact, it already is. We want to leverage that towards the future. I think there’s a message to everyone: that manufacturing for our country is a competitive advantage that enables us to respond to things yet unseen. M
Fact File: General Motors
HQ: Detroit, MI
Business Sector: Automotive
Revenues: $137.2 billion GAAP)
Net Income: $6.7 billion GAAP)
Number of Production Sites:: more than 150 sites with 125,000 employees on six continents in 20 countries and 40-plus unions globally
Title: Executive Vice President of Global Manufacturing
Education: Bachelor’s degree in industrial administration from Kettering University, Master’s degree in manufacturing operations from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Previous Roles Include:
– Vice President of GM North America Manufacturing & Labor Relations, Aug 2017 – Mar 2019
– Vice President of Global Operational Excellence, Jul 2014 – Aug 2017
– Vice President of GM North America Manufacturing, Jul 2013 – Jul 2014
– Executive Director of Global Program Quality, Feb 2013 – Jul 2013
– President of General Motors Component Holdings, 2010 – Jan 2013
– Executive Director of Manufacturing, GMNA, 2009 – Jan 2013
– Executive Director of Manufacturing, GM Europe, Opel /Vauxhall Division, Zurich, Switzerland, 2006 – 2009
– Johnson started at General Motors in 1980 at the Fisher Body Plant in Euclid, Ohio. Early in his career, he served in several positions in Grand Blanc, Michigan-based operations in labor relations and stamping. He progressed through a series of manufacturing leadership positions in company operations in Marion, Indiana; Livonia, Michigan; Parma, Ohio; Mansfield, Ohio; Troy, Michigan; and Pontiac, Michigan.
Other Industry Roles and Awards:
– Kettering University Board of Trustees
– Manufacturing Leadership Council, 2020 Manufacturing Leader of the Year Award
– Member of Chairman and CEO Mary Barra’s Senior Leadership Team, GM’s Inclusion Advisory Board, and the GM PAC Board and Steering Committee
– In 2018, SAE International honored Johnson with the Subir Chowdhury Medal of Quality Leadership recognizing the mobility profession’s benefits to society through quality in engineering.
– In 2014, he was awarded the Black Engineer of the Year Career Achievement Award at the organization’s annual STEM Conference. Since then, BEYA honored him again by naming a Legacy Award after him that recognizes an individual’s technical achievements, management skills, leadership and community service that mirrors Johnson’s.
– In 2012, Johnson was celebrated by the Michigan Chronicle at the Fifth Annual “Men of Excellence Awards.” Annually, the newspaper spotlights men who have inspired others through their vision and leadership, exceptional achievements, and participation in community service.