Culture and Agile – GM and its failed attempt to mimic Toyota

I had a good friend of mine – Mark Taylor – recommend some listening material recently on GM. I’ve been fascinated with Toyota since I first started learning about Agile development practices, and this podcast definitely was worth the time to listen. It’s a fascinating story. Why was Toyota so willing to be so open and revealing with one of its biggest competitors – GM – on its higher quality production processes? Turns out there’s a lot more to making cars than just an assembly line.

This isn’t just history. All successful companies hit a moment of complacency. For people who are interested in improving the quality of their working life – whatever the field – there’s some real lessons here. (And, if you’re still not convinced, think of all the billions of your taxpayer dollars that had to go into bailing American car companies after they went bankrupt!)

Some thoughts I had – in outline form – from this:

  • Culture Matters (are your teams top down or horizontal?)
    • “Back home in Fremont, GM supervisors ordered around large groups of workers. At the Takaoka plant, people were divided into teams of just four or five, switched jobs every few hours to relieve the monotony, and a team leader would step in to help whenever anything went wrong.”
  • Stopping The Line With Defects (how do you handle bugs?)
    • I can’t remember any time in my working life where anybody asked for my ideas to solve the problem. And they literally want to know. And when I tell them, they listen, and then suddenly they disappear, and somebody comes back with the tool that I just described. It’s built, and they say try this. Under the Toyota system, everyone’s expected to be looking for ways to improve the production process all the time, to make the workers’ job easier and more efficient, to shave extra steps and extra seconds off each worker’s job. To spot defects in the cars and the causes of those defects. This is the Japanese concept of kaizen, continuous improvement. When a worker makes a suggestion that saves money, he gets a bonus of a few hundred dollars or so…. And if you look around the Toyota plant, you can see the result of all those improvements. Hanging shelves that travel along with the car and the worker, carrying the parts and bolts they need within easy reach. Special cushions they throw into the car frames when they have to kneel inside. Workers’ tasks have been streamlined to the fewest possible steps, each step timed down to the second.
    • In contrast, in GM plants, workers could never stop the line – because they’re lazy, you know? “So now we tell the plant floor, don’t you worry about the production volume. You worry about quality. The last thing we want is to have a lot of defects flowing down the line that we have to repair later.”
  • It Takes Brains – You Can’t Just Mimic
    • (after a failed trainsplant) “For this workforce, there were no trips to Japan, no tearful sushi parties. And from the start, workers were skeptical…. This was one of the biggest differences between Fremont and Van Nuys. Van Nuys hadn’t been shut down. Turns out it’s a lot easier to get workers to change if they’ve lost their jobs, and then you offer them back. Without that, many union members just saw the Toyota system as a threat.”
    • “…much of the Japanese system happened off the factory floor, it answered something that had never quite made sense to {one of the managers}. Why had Toyota been so open with GM in showing its operations? We didn’t understand this bigger picture thing. All of our questions were focused on the floor, you know? The assembly plant. What’s happening on the line. That’s not the real issue. The issue is, how do you support that system with all the other functions that have to take place in the organization?”
    • “I remember one of the GM managers was ordered from a very senior level– it came from a vice president– to make a GM plant look like NUMMI. And he said, I want you to go there with cameras and take a picture of every square inch. And whatever you take a picture of, I want it to look like that in our plant. There should be no excuse for why we’re different than NUMMI, why our quality is lower, why our productivity isn’t as high, because you’re going to copy everything you see. Immediately, this guy knew that was crazy. We can’t copy employee motivation. We can’t copy good relationships between the union and management. That’s not something you can copy, and you can’t even take a photograph of it.”
  • Its Not Just The Assembly Line
    • “The team concept stressed continuous improvement. If a team got a shipment of parts that didn’t fit, they’d alert their bosses, who’d then go to the suppliers to fix the problem. Sometimes they’d realize the problem was in the part’s design, and Toyota engineers would go back to the drawing board and remake the part to address the problem workers were having on the assembly line. All the departments in the company worked together. …. But Ernie’s suppliers had never operated in a system like that. If he asked for fixes, they blew him off. And if he called Detroit and asked them to redesign a part that wasn’t working, they’d ask him, why was he so special? They didn’t have to change it for any other plant. Why should they change it for him?”
  • The High Cost of Complacency
    • “One of the ironies of GM was that in the moment it went bankrupt, it was probably a better company than it had ever been. In the factories, they had really dramatically closed the productivity gap that they had had for many, many years. And on the new products, they have much better quality. So the company that failed was actually doing better than it had ever done. But it was too late, and that’s really sort of hard to forgive– that if you take 30 years to figure it out, chances are you’re going to get run over. And they got run over.”
    • “They sold junk for a while. Just any kind of piece of crap they could roll out there, they did. And they paid a tremendous price for it. And even when they turned the corner in quality, people didn’t trust them. They’d say, well, gee, they’re building a good car now. Why aren’t they buying them?”