Project Manager Versus Chief Engineer: What’s The Difference?

Question put to Michael Ballé in his Gemba Coach column:

Management wants us to start lean in product development, but refuses to consider the difference in roles between our current project manager and a chief engineer – how important is that?

Project Manager and Chief Engineer are job titles covering different roles in different organizations. Before commenting on whether management in the questioner’s company should switch titles, we should know how they select their project managers, how much authority the project managers have, and what they are accountable for. Some companies do an outstanding job of product development under project managers; others don’t.

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Buy More Robots? | Adams Nager | IndustryWeek

“More robots means lower unemployment and better trade performance. […] The United States does not lose jobs because there is not enough work to be done but rather because U.S. industry is not competitive with foreign producers. More robots will help fix this.”


Michel Baudin‘s comments:Really? If you are not competitive, just buy more robots! But wait… Haven’t we heard this before? Isn’t it what GM did in the 1980s? Under Roger Smith’s leadership, from 1980 to 1989, GM spent about $40B on robots, and this investment didn’t make it competitive.

It doesn’t mean robots are bad, only that they are not a panacea. Toyota’s Global Body Line is designed to use welding robots where they are justified, and manual welding where not, using the same fixtures.

In an auto parts plant in Japan, I remember seeing a machining cell with old machines served by robots. A few yards away were new, automated lines that didn’t use robots.

It looked very much as if the old cell with new robots was the result of incremental automation, and that the lessons learned had been applied in the design of the new lines.

Robots are tools. If you know how to use them, they will help you; if you don’t, buying more is just a waste of money.

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The GM Toyota Rating Scale | Bill Waddell

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“In a survey of suppliers on their working relationships with the six major U.S. auto makers – Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Ford, Chrysler and GM – GM scored the worst.  But of course they did.  They are GM and we can always count on such results from them. […] Toyota scored highest with a ranking of 318, followed by Honda at 295, Nissan at 273, Ford at 267, Chrysler at 245, with GM trotting along behind the rest with an embarrassing 244.”


Michel Baudin‘s comments:

While I am not overly surprised at the outcome, I am concerned about the analysis method. The scores are weighted counts of subjective assessments, with people being asked to rate, for example, the “Supplier-Company overall working relationship” or “Suppliers’ opportunity to make acceptable returns over the long term.”

This is not exactly like the length of a rod after cutting or the sales of Model X last month. There is no objective yardstick, and two individuals might rate the same company behavior differently.

It is not overly difficult to think of more objective metrics, such as, for example, the “divorce rate” within a supplier network. What is the rate at which existing suppliers disappear from the network and others come in? The friction within a given Supplier-Customer relationship could be assessed from the number of incidents like the customer paying late or the supplier missing deliveries…

Such data is more challenging to collect, but supports more solid inferences than opinions.

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The Day I Thought I’d Get Fired from “The Old GM” – Putting Quality over Quantity | Mark Graban

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Blog post at Lean Blog :”[…]I’ve been in healthcare for 8.5 years now, but at the start of my career, I was an entry-level industrial engineer at the GM Powertrain Livonia Engine plant from June 1995 to May 1997. This plant was in my hometown, Livonia, Michigan and was located exactly 1.3 miles from the house where I grew up. The factory opened in 1971, two years before I was born. The factory closed in 2010 due to the GM bankruptcy and sits empty today as part of the ‘rust belt’ ..]”


Michel Baudin‘s comments:

About a decade before Mark, I spent time implementing scheduling systems in GM plants, and my memories, while not great, are less gloomy than Mark’s. My main project was at the GM aluminum foundry in Bedford, IN which is still open today, unlike the Livonia plant where Mark worked.

I remember being impressed by the depth of automotive and manufacturing knowledge of the GM engineers and managers; I also remember them as unable to implement any of their ideas, because it was dangerous to be perceived as someone who makes waves. They had no need for the scheduling system, but it was a corporate decision to deploy it in 150 plants, and they just had to get along.

The company culture was dysfunctional — particularly in quality, safety, and improvement —  but the plant was in a small town where the employees all knew each other and worked to make a go of it as best they could. And, they are still around.

I have since experienced a radically different quality culture in another car company. The quality manager in a parts plant once noticed that defectives had been shipped to final assembly. The parts had been machined so well that they didn’t leak at final test even though they were missing a gasket.

The quality manager —  who told me the story — felt that he had to do whatever it took to prevent the cars being shipped with the defective parts. What it did take was driving two hours to the assembly plant at night, locating the finished cars with the defective parts in the shipping yard, and removing their keys.

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The NUMMI Story (Minus the Ending) | Matthew May

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“At the risk of being repetitive, allow me to retell one of my favorite stories. First, imagine the worst place you’ve ever worked. The darkest, most depressing, soul-sucking work environment you’ve ever had the misfortune to inhabit.

Got it in your mind’s eye? Now, multiply it by oh, say, 100. That’s how bad the place I’m about to describe was. I know, because I spoke to people who were there.

The year was 1982. It was the year of Jordaache Jeans. The year of Wendy’s “Where The Beef?” commercial. And the It was 1982, the first full year of Reaganomics.

The place was the General Motors Fremont, California plant…”

Michel Baudin‘s comments:

The NUMMI joint venture between GM and Toyota is a great story of thorough transformation. It is how a car plant from worst to best. Unfortunately, it ended in 2010, when GM when bankrupt and Toyota declined to take over the entire venture.

Now Toyota is part owner of Tesla,  the facility is the Tesla plant, and it has been getting renewed attention as such. This is a new lease on life but Tesla’s 10,000 cars/year do not compare with the 250,000 NUMMI used to make.

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