End of the Saturn Dream, or "United We Stand?"


Lofty Promise of Saturn Plant Runs Into G.M.'s Fiscal Reality – New York Times

This is so sad. It also reminds me of when EDS was supposed to make GM fast and nimble. It turned out that slow and bloated won out and it practically ruined EDS.

I remember meeting the two men who really helped start the Spring Hill plant and the UAW experience, Thomas Weekley (GM) and Jay Wilber (UAW). They wrote a book, United We Stand: The Unprecedented Story of the GM-UAW Quality Partnership, in 1996, I'll have to revisit that book. They were so high minded about what they hoped to do with Saturn, from both sides.

Here are selected quotes from the article. I almost can't even bring myself to comment on this, the moral of the story is so clear. You can't trust GM to do the right thing. They're doomed.

  • Next year, in a move that presages the end to G.M.'s grand Saturn experiment in Spring Hill, the company will shut one of two assembly lines at one of the most famous factories in the country.
  • The Saturn plant, like other efforts at G.M. to battle foreign competition, became a victim of the company's short attention span. At a critical time when the plant needed to grow, G.M instead poured money into sport utility vehicles and pickups, hoping to outwit the Japanese – only to see them invade those markets, too. And workers here are paying the price.

    “Workers have got to be asking themselves, What do we have to do?” said Gary N. Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

  • “The social contract was that if we build a quality product, we're going to have jobs, our kids are going to have jobs, and the plant will still be in town,” Professor Chaison said. “Now, that idea is gone.”
  • These Saturn workers have learned the harsh reality that building quality cars and cooperating with management are not enough to save their jobs.
  • G.M.'s chief executive, Rick Wagoner, said last week that he regretted having to shut such heralded plants. “It's not an easy decision,” Mr. Wagoner said. “We don't have many plants that aren't high quality and very productive.”
  • Toyota and Honda really have a remarkable capacity to put more than one vehicle in a plant,” John Paul MacDuffie, an associate professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said last week. “G.M. just can't do that,” except at a few factories.
  • Both were eager for a chance to start over. But now, as back in Michigan, “you just do your job and go home,” Mr. Kilburn said.
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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. OK, I will comment. It kills me that Wagoner says it tough to close Spring Hill, along with other top quality plants, because all of their plants are high quality and high productivity.


    But the plants aren’t flexible!! The quote right below Wagoner points that out. GM has never understood that apparently.

    The workers then suffer from
    A) cars people don’t want to buy
    B) factories that aren’t flexible enough to keep them working, rewarding the plants that perform well.

    Now I know some of the reason why people hate GM cars is from the build quality, of which the union has some responsibility. But, as Deming said, quality is top management’s job, through design, procurement, leadership, etc.

    It’s so sad to see people who really tried to have a participative environment get slapped down by GM for it.

    Good luck getting lean at your other factories, GM. Is morale as bad there now as at Delphi? How can you be lean without “respect for humanity”, as Norm Bodek always points out???

  2. Speaking of the impact “respect for humanity”, here’s an excerpt from a Washington Post article about the Saturn plant closing:

    Warren Evans, a GM employee at the Oklahoma City plant since 1983, said he and many workers at the plant were skeptical of GM’s decision to retool the plant several years ago. “When they put this new product in there, the SUV, I knew it wasn’t going to work out,” he said. “The market was already flooded with the SUVs.

    “The engineers, to me, they’re stuck on stupid. They never talk to us, the people on the line.”


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