It’s NOT the Fault of GM’s Workers

NPR : Reasons for GM Slide Go Beyond Work Force

Honestly, I’d expect more from liberal NPR and their headline. You’d expect NPR to be the friend of the UAW “working man” (or woman), but I don’t appreciate how their headline is implying that GM’s problems were the fault of normal workers, instead of management.

Japan’s Toyota has overtaken United States rival General Motors in sales volume for the latest quarter, and is on pace to knock off GM as the world’s biggest automaker.

There are lots of reasons for GM’s decline, but industry analysts say assembly workers aren’t to blame.

Of course workers aren’t to blame. The difference between Toyota and GM is a difference in management systems, not a difference in workers. Look at the success of NUMMI, where Toyota is running a plant with the same workers GM was failing with, before 1983 (well, most of the 1983 workers are retired now, I’m sure). Toyota didn’t hire EVERYONE back, but they were able to succeed with the UAW and its workforce.

GM was once no match for Toyota when it came to building cars fast. In 1998, it took GM workers an extra 10 hours to push a vehicle off the line. By 2005, GM had narrowed that gap to about an hour.

Is the implication here that GM workers were lazy before and now they’re working harder? The “hours per vehicle metric is driven primarily by vehicle design and the design of the management system that runs the plants. Sure, you could also blame the inflexible work rules dreamed up by the UAW, but that’s not the “workers” fault. If vehicles are designed to be more easily assembled, that would have a big impact on hours per vehicle. Even if you want to dump on GM workers, you’d have to agree, then, that they aren’t working harder than they were in 1998. Lean practices would increase efficiency at the factory level, I’m sure that’s a factor too.

Toyota Way author Jeff Liker pointed out:

“There would be evidence of what they learned from Toyota in every factory in the world,” Liker said. “One of the more advanced ones is the Cadillac plant in Lansing (Mich.) where the quality and productivity is pretty close to Toyotas.”

But it was too little, too late, he added.

GM copied some Toyota methods, but is that evidence that they copied the management system? Probably not. Hence, GM’s troubles.

Indeed, the company has designed many vehicles that consumers just didn’t want to buy. That damaged GM’s image and cost thousands of workers their jobs.

“Some of the plants that have the reputation for being the best in terms of quality of the work force, teamwork, all the things that management asks, are the ones that were selected to be closed,” Liker said.

To me, it’s definitely not the workers’ fault. Management designs vehicles and has responsibility for making sure these cars meet the needs of the workers. Having a super efficient factory that builds cars that don’t sell isn’t very Lean at all, even if the factory used Kanban and 5S. Lean isn’t just a set of factory tools, it’s an overall management system that includes product development and other aspects of the enterprise.

I think the article/audio story mostly gets in right, pointing out the systemic problems and management errors of GM. But, NPR should have titled their story “Reasons for GM Slide Aren’t the Workforce.” You won’t get very far with Lean if you’re dumping on or blaming your employees.

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an eBook titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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