Bad employees or bad system? Ask 1984 GM.

In July 2015, public radio show This American Life aired an update of a 2010 episode on NUMMI, an auto manufacturing joint venture between GM and Toyota in Fremont, California. This partnership was revolutionary in that it brought the Japanese automotive manufacturing system, which stressed teamwork and continuous improvement, to American auto workers. It was responsible for a cultural transformation in the workers at the GM plant that brought with it an abrupt improvement in quality and team morale.

The story of the NUMMI plant highlights how true teamwork can revolutionize a workforce and its output. The experience of NUMMI is also similar to transforming a software development team or an organization to embrace Agile methodologies. (Others have also noticed the parallels with agile software development. See the article “An Agile Transformation Story from 1984” from Matt Block, an Agile Coach also in Indianapolis.)

See if you notice any parallels between your current workplace culture and the culture at GM Fremont plant before it transformed to the NUMMI plant.

Need for transformation

When NUMMI was planned in the 1980s, GM was the world’s largest car company with a US market share seven times bigger than Toyota. Due to stricter government emission guidelines, GM needed to make smaller cars. However, GM’s small cars were of poor quality and GM lost money on their production. Toyota proposed partnering with GM to use Toyota’s manufacturing process to build profitable, high-quality small cars for GM.

Toyota believed their process of continuous improvement and teamwork would enable them to succeed by transforming the culture. (It turned out Toyota was correct.) Invested, engaged employees enabled NUMMI to hit quality and profitability goals.

The system makes it bad, not the people

Your system is bad and you should feel badA fascinating aspect of NUMMI’s success was the transformation of the employees. Before converting to NUMMI, the GM Fremont plant had an antagonistic culture between management and union workers.

Bruce Lee was in charge of Fremont Union Local 1364 of the United Auto Workers. In the This American Life story, Lee describes the Fremont plant workforce as “the worst workforce in the automobile industry in the United States. And it was a reputation that was well-earned. Everything was a fight. They spent more time on grievances and on things like that than they did on producing cars. They had strikes all the time. It was just chaos constantly.” Absenteeism was rampant. Not only was their workforce disengaged, they were destructive. Employees would retaliate at management by intentionally messing up the cars they were building: scratching cars or putting Coke bottles or loose bolts inside door panels so they’d annoy customers.

In 1982, GM shut the Fremont plant down and laid off thousands of workers. When planning to reopen Fremont in the next year as NUMMI, union leader Lee pushed to rehire the same union leadership in place before. He believed “it was the system that made it bad, not the people.” Toyota also felt their process would turn bad workers around, and agreed over protests from GM to staff the new plant with a lot of the same employees. When NUMMI opened, over 85% of the workers were from the previous GM Fremont plant.

Helping others: a new way of working

You called for helpToyota began flying employees over to Japan in groups of 30 to learn the Toyota manufacturing system. Training NUMMI workers in Japan allowed the U.S. workers to see first-hand a new way of working. One of the biggest changes was the spirit of collaboration of the Toyota team members. Jeffrey Liker, a professor of industrial engineering at University of Michigan and author of the book The Toyota Way, explained on This American Life that during training the American workers “wanted to show they could do it within the time allotted, and they would usually get behind, and they would struggle, and they would try to catch up. And at some point, somebody would come over and say, ‘Do you want me to help?’ And that was a revelation, because nobody in the GM plant would ever ask to help. They would come and yell at you because you got behind.

Not only did the workers in the Toyota system want to help, but they also wanted to learn from issues and improve. People worked together to solve problems. As Liker explained, “the biggest surprise was if, when they had those problems, afterwards, somebody would come up to them and say, ‘What are your ideas for improvement so we don’t have that problem again?’

Not only that, but they would actually try the suggestions. Liker further explained on This American Life that the U.S. workers “couldn’t believe that responsiveness. 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.’

Was fine for me, your problem nowExamine your teams at work.

  • Do you have employees that look out for themselves first, even at the detriment of the team?
  • Are all your team members responsive and helpful to others to make sure everyone is working productively? A red flag I’ve noticed on a software development Scrum team is when software developers pull in new coding work for themselves to do rather than pitch in with other in-progress work (like helping with code reviews or testing).

Even if you think your team is working well, take a step back and examine whether different teams in your organization help each other.

  • Do your employees readily help people on other teams?
  • Do they jump in to figure out issues that other people are having, or do they shrug and suffer from “It Works Fine For Me” syndrome?

Fix a problem rather than tolerating it

Expecting all employees to be part of making improvements in your process is a great way to transform your culture. The Japanese term Kaizen (“continuous improvement”) explains the philosophy in the Toyota manufacturing process. In the Toyota system, people were always expected to find ways to improve production, find efficiencies, and make jobs easier for employees without sacrificing quality.

Andon cordNotice my deliberate use of the word “expected.” Not encouraged to solve problems together and find better ways of working, but expected to do so. And Toyota was serious about it. The best proof of this the use of the Andon cord, a thin nylon rope along the assembly line. When any worker pulled this, it would alert team leaders to the area to try to fix the problem. If it couldn’t be fixed, the production line was stopped to allow time for collaboration to fix the issue. (Another telling fact about the spirit behind the Andon cord: when you pull it, it plays a cheerful tune chosen by the workers in that area. Pulling the cord is a good thing because you’re addressing a problem.)

Does your workplace expect that employees will fix issues they find? Are they merely encouraged to do so (you know, if it’s convenient)? Or, are your team members plugging along merely tolerating and accepting inefficient or bad ways of operating.

If your teams are tolerating (or, God help you, embracing) mediocrity, then it’s time to dive in and figure out why.

  • Are employee suggestions to improve ever actually implemented? If so, is it easy to make a tweak or is it typically a big ordeal? People will gladly make things better when it’s easy and welcomed to do so. If trying to improve always involves fighting a battle or red tape, your employees will eventually get tired of fighting and won’t even try.
  • If something is going badly, would your employees pull the hypothetical Andon cord to fix it?
    • Are changes encouraged, even if it means temporarily stopping to figure out a better way? Or is GM’s old mentality of “don’t ever stop the production line!” shared by your team or company? (I think the modern equivalent of “don’t stop the line!” is “We’re too busy to slow down or stop now and fix that. We’ll do it later after we get through this day/week/project/decade.”)
    • Do leaders and others jump in to assist with figuring out the problem and making it better? Or, is it every man for himself? If people are left to fend for themselves to fix an issue, they’re unlikely to call attention to the fact that there’s a problem or that they’re struggling to fix it. And, it’s easier to ignore or put off a problem that nobody else knows about.

Employee transformation

How I look when I leave work knowing I did nothing the whole dayIn the NUMMI venture, the most startling yet gratifying outcome was the transformation of the workers. Remember, the This American Life episode mentioned that 85% of the NUMMI workers trained in the Toyota manufacturing process were from the old GM Fremont plant, where the culture was so toxic that some workers would intentionally damage the vehicles they were building.

From the start, the Toyota cars made in California at NUMMI had the same high quality as the cars being manufactured in Japan. Maryann Keller, author of Rude Awakening: The Rise, Fall, and Struggle for Recovery of General Motors, said that after three months of production, cars coming off the NUMMI assembly line were getting near perfect quality ratings. Fixing quality problems, one of GM’s reasons for partnering with Toyota, had happened.

Most interesting, employees began to enjoy working again. Absenteeism and grievance filing by the union fell dramatically. Several NUMMI employees interviewed for the radio episode remembered taking pride in their work and actually enjoying coming to work for the first time. Rick Madrid built Chevy trucks at the old Fremont plant for 17 years before working at NUMMI building the Nova. Madrid remembered, “Oh, I had a stack of these postcards. And I would just drive around. If I’d see a Nova parked, I would put one of these under the windshield wiper. Of course, it had my name, my address on it, and ‘Your opinion of the Nova?’ And just basically, they’d drop me a line, and a lot of people did this.”

Interviewer Frank Langfitt mentioned in the story, “Another worker told me he’d go to the Chevy dealership to stare at the Novas. He didn’t tell anyone he built them, or that he worked at NUMMI. He just liked seeing what the cars looked like, sitting there on the lot.”

Take a look at whether your employees demonstrate pride and ownership for what they’re doing at work.
Look at the clues and figure out whether they enjoy what they’re doing or if they’re just doing the minimum to collect a paycheck.

  • If a stranger walked into a random team meeting, would they see obvious pride and passion from your employees?
  • Do your employees show their friends and family what they’ve built? When they see strangers using your company’s product, do they ask what they think? What do they do with this feedback? Do they share it with co-workers? Is it easy to take constructive criticism to the right people and start making changes?
  • Are most of your salaried employees eager to do great things each day? Or does a “get to work by 9-ish and get out by 4-ish” attitude prevail?

A new hope

When in doubt, take the next small step.If you noticed similarities between your employees and the GM Fremont employees before the 1984 NUMMI plant, take some action today to make teamwork and collaboration a little bit easier.

John Shook moved to Japan in the 1980s to learn the Japanese manufacturing techniques and was hired by Toyota to train the GM employees to work in the NUMMI plant. On This American Life, he recalled the transformation the workers experienced, “It might sound flowery to say 25 years later, but they had such a powerful, emotional experience of learning a new way of working–a way that people could actually work together collaboratively as a team. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. There were a lot of hurdles to overcome. But there was no question in anyone’s mind that this was going to work.

The NUMMI transformation was a massive endeavor made by a company in crisis. It paid off for GM at the Fremont plant. You don’t have to wait for your company to be in crisis to make things better. Even if you don’t have the power and resources to bring in trainers to transform your company, regularly take small steps with your team to make teamwork and collaboration better.

People have studied the NUMMI GM-Toyota partnership for years. I’m sure I have another blog post about it in me, so stay tuned! To be automatically notified by email when I post a new entry to this blog, sign up at

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