Thanks to this post by Bruce Hamilton (aka “Toast Guy” or “Old Lean Dude”), I was reminded of the old General Motors effort, spearheaded by then-CEO Roger Smith (of “Roger & Me” fame), to fully automate car factories. Their concept was the “lights-out factory” that could run without people (other than a security guard).
GM invested $90 BILLION dollars over 10 years in this quixotic (if not foolhardy) quest. The robots often famously painted each other instead of painting cars, as described in the book Comeback:
As Dan Markovitz asked in a comment on Bruce’s post, imagine if they had invested earlier in creating a Lean culture, working with their employees instead of trying to replace them? Imagine if they had more quickly learned the lessons from NUMMI? It’s also a story that warns of the consequences of not first trying a “small test of change.”
In searching for a reference to the $90B number, I found this column written after Smith’s death by Doron Levin, who has covered the auto industry for all of my adult life and then some:
This jumped out at me, in particular:
“Needless to say, robotic car factories remain a fantasy.
Union-management relations, meanwhile, are as dysfunctional as ever. To satisfy his curiosity about competition from Japan, Smith agreed in 1984 to a joint manufacturing venture with Toyota Motor Corp. at a mothballed GM plant in Fremont, Calif [NUMMI].
But the key lessons about Toyota quality that his executives learned weren’t what he wanted to hear.
“He thought Toyota possessed some kind of magic,” said Maryann Keller, a former auto industry analyst and author of “Rude Awakening,” a book about the automaker published in 1990.
“The Toyota joint venture taught that GM management was the problem.”
The trick to cost savings wasn’t simply getting rid of people. GM had to motivate workers in factories and yes-men in executive suites to take more responsibility and improve output. GM quality and productivity were second-rate.
I tried and failed to find out whether Smith ever read “The Machine that Changed the World…”
I wonder if Smith ever read the book. I doubt he did.
And think about the parallels from that Levin column to healthcare today… attempts to cut costs (laying off people), poor quality and productivity, leaders not realizing the problem is the management system…
Dr. Deming tried telling GM much earlier that GM management was the problem. That made Dr. Deming pretty unwelcome around GM.
Toyota doesn’t have some kind of magic. In healthcare, ThedaCare doesn’t have some kind of magic.
They manage differently. ThedaCare had to CHANGE the way they manage. The secret isn’t “motivating workers” — the secret is engaging them in improvement.
Others can do this… but it requires humility, dedication, and a willingness to change… not magic.
Too many healthcare executives are trying to cut costs by “getting rid of people.” Everybody needs to work together to improve quality and productivity at the same time. As Deming said, it starts in the boardroom.
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