Coming Soon: A Fresh Look at Some Old GM & NUMMI Documents About Lean, Japan, and More

Don EphlinWhen I was a graduate student at the MIT Leaders for Global Operations program, one of our visiting professors was Don Ephlin, a former Vice President for the United Auto Workers. He passed away in 2000 (read his obituary).

He was responsible for the UAW/Ford relationship for a few years and then was responsible for the UAW/GM relationship during the 1980s when GM started the NUMMI joint venture with Toyota and ramped up Saturn. Ephlin played a very critical role in both of those new ventures.

I did a Google search on him after a discussion with a Lean Blog reader (and sometimes commenter) who was also a UAW leader. I discovered that Ephlin’s UAW office papers were archived at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit.

img_5588I was back in the Detroit area for a football game and to visit friends and family, so, being the nerd that I am, I made an appointment to view the collection yesterday.

I’m not an academic researcher, so the idea of going to a library reading room collection was new. Thankfully, everybody at the library was incredibly welcoming and helpful about how their process worked.

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Here’s the reading room from the outside:

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Working from the list of boxes and folder names, I was able to request up to five boxes at a time, which they retrieved for me:

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Then, each box was jammed full of materials that were neatly organized into labeled folders.

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Given the work that Ephlin did, it’s a real treasure trove.

I was able to take photos of many documents. I was there about four hours and still haven’t been able to read through it all in detail. That will take time.

There will be plenty of blog posts to come, I’m sure.

Some of the documents include a Ford / UAW trip report from their visit to Japan and Toyota:

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And, an original NUMMI team member handbook from the plant’s opening in 1984:

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And a GM report from 1987 about “NUMMI Management Practices:”

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Because some of that material is labeled “GM Confidential” (it was the “Old GM”), I need to look for some guidance about what I can publish here and to what extent.

I will go ahead and share some of the quotes that are scattered around the NUMMI handbook that might seem familiar in words or concept.

This includes their focus on engaging every employee in Kaizen, or continuous improvement (something that GM didn’t really do at the Fremont plant before it became NUMMI):

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And Toyota emphasized the importance of good management (instead of blaming the workers like GM did):

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And the idea of developing people by challenging them to think and participate in Kaizen:

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And two quotes about problem solving:

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Stay tuned. I’ll be writing more about these documents in the coming weeks and months.

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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 book 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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