The Origin of the Simulated Work Environment

by Ken Knight with Jim Huntzinger

In early 1999, General Motors (GM) started a project which ultimately became the Lansing Grand River (LGR) plant in Lansing, MI, the United Automobile Workers (UAW) Local 652 would represent members not only at the new project but also the Lansing Assembly operation and Lansing Plant #3 (a stamping plant. Members then had the option of placing bids for their preferred location, based on seniority and availability of their chosen spots.

The direction of the overall site design for LGR was to be lean in every respect and incorporate all concepts and features of General Motor’s Global Manufacturing System (GMS).  The timing for LGR was on the heels of successful GM greenfield projects in Brazil, Argentina, China, and Poland.  These projects were based on fundamental roots going back to Eisenach, Germany – (where Ken Knight worked from 1995-1999) which in turn was modeled after the Canadian Automotive Manufacturing Inc. (CAMI) project in Ingersoll, Ontario – the General Motors Canadian operation.  Leadership understood that successful operation of a lean facility required a lean culture and all that goes with it.  But first, they had to overcome the hurdle of establishing this culture with a workforce accustomed to the traditional working environment.

Simulated Work Environment (SWE), developed by Ken Knight, provided part of the solution. He coached a small team of folks throughout the fabrication and validation of the SWE during its first installation at LGR. The design of the physical system incorporated the essentials of what any manufacturing member would encounter in a “lean” manufacturing environment.  ”A day in the life of” took participants through an active experiential learning journey which touched on all the principles and many elements of GMS.  The local union agreed to allow members to voluntarily go through the SWE training prior to making their choice of plant relocation.

Sessions ran for both production and skilled trades members – so that EVERYONE would “know what they were signing up for.”  Many are surprised to learn that upwards of 80% of the people who participated in those sessions elected not to go to the LGR project.  In retrospect, Mr. Knight is absolutely sure this was a key factor in LGR’s successful launch.  His belief was confirmed by the plant earning the JD Power Silver Plant Award in its first full year of operation and the JD Power GOLD award the following year (2004).  That same year, LGR was recognized by The Harbour Report as setting the lean benchmark for luxury vehicle plants.

While SWE was originally meant to be used as a filter, it was rapidly recognized as an effective training tool for many purposes and remains in use today.  In fact, Ken Knight personally coached each of his first group of shift leaders and area managers through multiple runs of the SWE to ensure their leadership responses to common situations would be consistent and meet the needs of a lean/learning culture.  In the right hands, SWE can be extremely useful as a leadership training tool.  Most often, though, it is still used as an introductory experience as part of new employee orientation.

At one point, there were 40-plus installations around GM globally.  During Mr. Knight’s assignment as plant manager of Oshawa Truck (Oshawa, Ontario, Canada), and working with a very limited launch budget, he developed a similar “Junior” version which was fabricated out of Creform tubing.  This Junior SWE was later used in several plants where the moving conveyor was less of a realistic feature.  Although it is slightly less realistic, the same concepts and “ah ha” moments were generated with the Junior version.

In the early 2000’s, GM Europe did some work directly with Caterpillar (CAT) and they also built a few SWE installations.  One year, an image of SWE was featured on CAT’s annual corporate report, representing their efforts to go lean.

Still later, a healthcare group in Atlanta entered a cooperative relationship on lean activities with GM and they received the rights to operate their own SWE.  That’s the last “export” of the method Ken Knight was aware of until a colleague of his circulated training materials from Lean Frontiers (www.leanfrontiers.com) featuring their Skillpoint for Job Instruction workshop (https://www.leanfrontiers.com/skillpointji/) which utilizes the SWE which was formerly the simulator built and housed at the Toyota-GM joint venture, New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., (NUMMI) Plant in Fremont, California.

Ken Knight realized back in 1999, and I joked with his team, that he should buy a used 53′ box trailer and a Kenworth tractor to take the SWE on the road.  Had he listened, perhaps he would be sailing on a nice yacht today.