Organizational barriers to change (from 1980s GM): Part 2

This is final part of my two-part series that explores barriers to organizational change. (Read Part 1 here.) The examples I highlight were observed in the 1980s when GM tried to transition their manufacturing plants to the Japanese manufacturing process. Yet, these qualities can also be seen in companies today that resist organizational transformation.

The episode of This American Life on NUMMI explored the transformation of the GM Fremont plant to the Japanese manufacturing concept in the early 1980s. (I wrote about it in my article “Bad employees or bad system? Ask 1984 GM.”) The team-based, collaborative concept helped GM build high-quality cars at NUMMI. Yet, the barriers to change in the massive GM organization prevented the manufacturing plant transformation from taking place throughout the company quickly.

The first four “barriers to change” were covered in my previous blog post. Read on for my next three observations about companies resistant to change…and to learn the silver lining about organizational change observed at 1980s GM.

Barriers to change

Man with head in sandAs detailed on This American Life, some themes emerged in GM’s failed attempts to transform their other plants to the team-based, collaborative Japanese manufacturing style. (I explained the first four here.)

  1. Underestimating the competitive threat
  2. Believing the customer is wrong
  3. A culture of blame rather than continuous improvement
  4. Rewarding the wrong goals
  5. A “throw it over the wall” culture
  6. Focusing on the wrong problem
  7. Changing something easy rather than focusing on the real issues

Have you recognized any of these same qualities at your company?

5. A “throw it over the wall” culture

Was fine for me, your problem nowGM had a compartmentalized culture. One group would design a vehicle. Another group would manufacture it. Any issues in manufacturing a vehicle was the manufacturer’s problem, and they had to deal with it themselves. Contrast that with a Japanese manufacturing concept: the manufacturers would discuss assembly issues with parts with the designers. This could even result in parts being redesigned to prevent future manufacturing problems.

I suspect “it’s fine for me, now it’s your problem” this is a common issue today at companies resistant to change. When every person (or team or department) is looking out for themselves, there is no reason for collaboration. Without collaboration and cooperation, it’s difficult to implement change in a meaningful way.


6. Focusing on the wrong problem

Dilbert cartoon of solving the wrong problem

On This American Life, longtime GM manager Ernie Schaefer explained why he thought Toyota was so willing to train and be open with GM about Japanese manufacturing techniques, despite GM and Toyota being competitors. “[Toyota] never prohibited us from walking through the plant, understanding, even asking questions of some of their key people. You know, I’ve often puzzled over that–why they did that. And I think they recognized we were asking all the wrong questions. 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?

Being in software engineering, the parallel I draw to this is when a company tries to transition to an Agile software development approach. Trainers are brought in to train the Engineering and Product organizations, which are those most closely involved in creating software. Yet, if the entire company doesn’t understand or adapt to Agile practices, the “Agile transformation” is going to struggle.

When trying to fix the problem of slow software development, any reasonable person would take a look at those actually writing the software. But, taking a step back and seeing how other departments at the company interact with the software engineering department can bring other problems to light. Not enough software engineers on a team can cause slow software development. So can constantly changing priorities from business stakeholders. Serious issues can exist outside where you’d first expect to see them.

7. Changing something easy rather than focusing on the real issues

There is no elevator to successJeffrey Liker, the expert on Japanese automobile manufacturing, explained a maddening approach that one GM leader ordered to try to replicate the cultural transformation that took place at NUMMI at another GM location. Liker explained on This American Life, “One of the GM managers was ordered from a very senior level…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.'”

Liker continued, “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.” Yet, focusing on changing anything easy can give a false sense of accomplishment because you are changing something.

Changing small things can be helpful because they can snowball into bigger changes. However, changing the wrong small things can also be a distraction from focusing on what will actually move the bar. Remember that being busy isn’t the same as being productive. Be honest with yourself on whether the small changes you are working on are actually important changes.

The silver lining for organizational changes

Changing an entire organization quickly cannot happen without strong leadership from the top to encourage and lead change. Yet, hope is not lost! People working at any level of a company can start making positive changes. Yes, that means you.

If your company is stuck in “1980s GM” mentality, unable to lead a necessary transformation from the top and paralyzed to change, don’t be a victim. It’s time for a grassroots effort if your organization’s upper leadership isn’t leading positive change. You may not control the company, but you have influence over your own team.

Despite GM’s struggles, there was a silver lining: people that went through the transformation at NUMMI loved it and championed the team-based, collaborative way of working within their own groups, without an organized plan from leadership. Though it took 15 years to spread enough at the massive GM organization to be apparent, organic changes from NUMMI did eventually happen.

On This American Life, industry expert Jeffrey Liker concluded that the changes from NUMMI eventually permeated GM because of the many managers that had gone through training or experienced NUMMI firsthand (some people only for a day and some people for years.) Liker explained, “Over time, you start to get 10 people, 20 people, 100 people, 300 people. And you now have a critical mass of people in GM who’ve all been in NUMMI. They’ve lived it. Now they’re managing people and teaching them what they learned. And it snowballs, and suddenly, the world is different at GM, and nobody can even tell you exactly why.”

Now it’s your turn

The secret of change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.

To affect change at any level, start with your own sphere of influence. (Maybe this is only yourself or your team.)

  • Lead by doing. Find a better way of doing something, and make it happen within your sphere of influence.
  • Tell others what you’re doing.
  • Let others observe your successful change.
  • Then, teach them how to do it! Now you have two teams working better.
  • Repeat the process, and make it three teams, then four…

That’s how you start a movement! What change are you going to start today?

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