Regular readers know I started my career at General Motors from 1995 to 1997. After graduate school at MIT, I took a job at Dell, Inc. in 1999. At the time, Dell was at the peak of its reputation in the business world and they were inundated with requests for tours. As a staff member, I was one of the volunteers who would give tours to visitors. I led tours for Wall Street investment bank leaders, former Rep. J.C. Watts from Oklahoma, and a group of GM leaders and UAW representatives.
Unfortunately, most of the manufacturing visitors were, I think, looking for some sort of secret sauce they could copy to become “the Dell of their market.” The auto industry visitors, for example, wanted to be able to build and deliver “build to order” cars to customers within 5 days (the amount of time it took Dell, generally, to deliver a PC to a customer). The auto industry is still working toward this goal. But one story from GM came back to me the other day and I don’t think I’ve told it on this blog.
During the GM tour, the visitors saw the PC assembly cells where, as is common and necessary in the electronics industry, workers were wearing antistatic “ESD straps” (as pictured at left). These straps kept workers grounded so that static discharge didn’t zap circuit boards or other electronics. This is a precaution that was not necessary on the automotive assembly line.
One of the senior UAW leaders I had been talking to during the tour got pulled me aside when he saw the assembly cells and he asked with a concerned tone:
“How does the company get away with tethering the workers to their stations?”
My jaw probably hit the floor. The question said A LOT about the mental models of the auto industry. Yes, it was a UAW leader who asked the question (I remember the moment vividly).
The auto industry mindsets and mental models (often unspoken) seemed to be:
- People don’t want to work very hard
- People won’t work unless you make them
- People will wander off unless you somehow tie them down
- The UAW didn’t trust GM to treat workers respectfully
This is clearly “Theory X” thinking at its strongest and most vivid. It says a lot about why the “Detroit Three” were so messed up, doesn’t it?
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