In the Joint Venture (JV) negotiation between GM and Toyota for the NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated, link below), the labor union had to concede many of their usual taken-for-granted rights, such as seniority. Recalling the bad-to-worse workforce at the Fremont site, it would be insane for GM to rehire that same lot after closing down the plant. Yet, the UAW western region boss, Bruce Lee, felt compelled to give the same crew another chance because he believed that their poor behavior was the product of the system. However, before Lee got the green light to do so, understandably, labor saw him as someone who betrayed their trust.
Now Bruce Lee wasn’t naïve or a wide-eye idealist. He fully acknowledged the behavioral problems at the old Fremont site. He said, “It was considered 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.” Still, his intuition and his understanding of the system convinced him to re-engage the same old hands. GM wouldn’t sanction doing so, but the Toyota executives believed that their system would change the workers. Of course, when Lee brought the proposal to the workers, they hated it, not least because the loss of seniority but everything was going to be different. They even vented their frustration and anger by burning a Lee effigy.
In the end, Bruce Lee held the aces: He had the jobs that the workers needed and with Toyota’s blessing he had hiring authority.
Being rehired was certainly a strong incentive for people to modify their behavior; however, a lot more was needed to sustain their willingness to transform. In retrospect, Toyota’s training groups of workers for two-week stretches in Japan was money well spent.
For the former Fremont workers, most of whom hadn’t travelled outside of California or the country, the trip to Japan was almost unnerving. Being in a totally different environment, not just the national culture but also the work culture, probably contributed dramatically to how these Americans reframed their own work attitude and changed their behavior. Not only did they learn that stopping the assembly line for trouble-shooting was encouraged, they were astounded to find themselves being asked to contribute ideas. Their opinions mattered; they possessed knowledge of how to get things done and done right. So, yes, “even” among assembly line workers, when invested with purpose, mastery, and autonomy, they could thrive and become more productive.
One related, “I can’t remember anytime 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.’”
Underneath the excitement of new attitude and new workflow, however, lurked a sense of embarrassment. Weren’t Americans supposed to be the best? Weren’t they the leaders in this industry? Now the “little” Japanese were showing them not only how to do things differently, but even do it better? A little hurt pride sometimes can be a good boost…especially when you are given a second chance.
After two weeks of relearning and retooling, the workers from both sides had an emotional farewell dinner over sushi. Sushi! This was still in the early 80s when Americans were only beginning to appreciate this exotic cuisine. The Americans felt confident in their “new clothes.” When all of the newly trained workers returned and restarted the Fremont assembly line, they gave it their all. In December 1984, the first Chevy Nova came off the line and everyone was proud of the product. It took less than one year to establish (or, reestablish?) GM Chevy’s reputation.
Bruce Lee: “Oh, I was so proud of them, you can’t even believe. The fact that they did it didn’t surprise me that much, but how quickly they did it did. It was amazing. Here was these same people, who before– I mean, hell, they’d go out of their way to make life miserable for General Motors particularly. And, you know, they were old, they were fat. Because that was not a young workforce that we brought in there.”
By industry’s standards, such as number of defects per 100 vehicles, Fremont’s record was the best in the country. It was the same as for Toyota’s Corollas. In addition, the cost saving for GM was astounding. They had figured it’d take additional resources, probably about +50%, under the old management to get anywhere near the new record.
Before NUMMI, the workers would keep their association with Fremont hidden, fearing confrontations with customers who had problems with the old vehicles. After NUMMI, one worker went around posting index cards on Novas parked on the street, with his name and address, asking for feedback. Largely positive.
So, you’d think the rest of GM plants would and should learn from NUMMI? The recent GM bankruptcy signaled to us that they didn’t. Changing a lumbering giant’s gait is just too hard. Stay tuned. Till next week,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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