What Would You Ask the UAW?


For UAW Chief, a Bid To Forestall ‘Waterloo' – WSJ.com

The UAW leader for the U.S., Ron Gettelfinger was featured in today's Wall Street Journal. He pretty much spoke the company line on the usual excuses for why the Detroit Three aren't as competitive as Toyota.

“In a defiant television interview to be aired this weekend, he blames currency imbalances and unfair foreign-trade practices for U.S. auto makers' competitive problems, and calls on the federal government to fix them.”

It amazes me anytime an article comparing the “Detroit Three” and Toyota does NOT mention the Toyota Production System and the lean practices. You can argue that there ARE unfair trade practices (or unfairness that the Detroit Three have to pay for healthcare), but shouldn't the companies and UAW also focus on things they have control over, such as quality and efficiency improvements through lean? Or, as it was with Delphi, would lean success (at least gaged by Shingo Prizes) not be enough?

What would you ask Ron or the UAW, in the context of Lean, if you had the chance?

  • What role does lean (or the lack of lean management) play in the gap between Detroit Three and Toyota? How does “factory lean” versus “lean enterprise” (including product development) impact Detroit Three competitiveness?
  • Isn't the best way to prevent wage erosion to improve productivity and utilize workers' ideas and ingenuity? Is Detroit Three management moving away from the old, disrespectful “check your brain at the door” approach to managing production workers? Are UAW employees prepared to cooperate as “thinkers” if management would let them?
  • Is the UAW no longer afraid of the word “lean?” Can the UAW work together with the company on lean methods, to help improve competitiveness? You can call it “global manufacturing” or “competitive manufacturing” instead of “lean manufacturing,” if you have to.

Lest anybody misinterpret my point here, I have NEVER blamed UAW employees for the problems that GM and the others face. I worked with many good, well-intended UAW employees during my time at GM in the 1990's. It was bad management practices that got in the way of their success. I learned quickly that it wasn't “lazy union workers” that held the company back.

I just think it's fair to ask the UAW to publicly endorse lean methods as one way of solving at least part of that competitiveness gap. Sure, ask the government for help, but make sure that isn't the only strategy.

What are your thoughts on this, Detroit folks and auto industry folks?

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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

  1. Tom Southworth says

    My local paper, the New London Day, had this editorial piece today on the auto industry’s opposition to new fuel economy standards.

    Automakers Lack Can-do Spirit

    Without saying it (or probably even knowing they were hinting at it), they hit on something that’s relevant to the debate over exchange rates, subsidies, etc, and that is that a growing number of the American car buying public doesn’t want what Detroit is making.

    We, the buying public, are setting the market rate and conditions for vehicle sales, not the government. If Uncle Sam gave the Detroit 3 a $10,000 subsidy per car, would Detroit make a better car that we’d want to buy?

    The editorial finishes with this statement: “if domestic automakers cannot figure out a way to build more efficient cars, foreign automakers will and the once-proud American auto industry will continue to lose market share.”

    It’s all about hearing the voice of the customer and the Detroit 3 still have their fingers in their ears.

  2. Anonymous says

    How much do you think the loss of markets share is due to quality and how much is due to poor design, styling, and marketing?

    What can lean do for the latter?

  3. Bob Graban says

    This post seems to imply that GM hasn’t discovered lean and GM is a laggard in productivity.

    If you want to know what the UAW had to say about productivity and the Harbour report, it isn’t hard to find it in a GM press release, Link and as an added bonus, you also get the statement of Buzz Hargrove of the Canadian Autoworkers Union:

    “We’re pleased that UAW members continue to make such a positive impact on GM’s productivity as seen in the awards in this survey,” said UAW vice president Cal Rapson. “UAW members and UAW leadership are well aware of the importance of focusing on improving GM’s U.S. manufacturing productivity.”

    Buzz Hargrove, president, CAW said today, “The results of the Harbour study just released are a reflection of the hard work and dedication of the men and women of the Canadian Auto Workers Union at GM plants. I congratulate these people for their ongoing commitment to making positive improvements in the workplace that benefit GM customers.”

    * In the most recent Harbour report, GM won 3 out of the 4 awards: Top Assembly, Engine and Transmission Plants in North America

    * Since 1998, GM has closed the productivity gap with Toyota by nearly 85 percent

    * Since 1998, GM has closed the vehicle assembly productivity gap with Toyota by approximately 99 percent

    * Improves Overall Manufacturing Productivity by 2.5 Percent

    [end info from GM press release]

    As far as quality, if it took Japan 4 years to get past building junk after listening to Dr. Deming, how long does it take Americans to forgive and forget? GM is still being strung up and quartered for sins older than Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinski affair, which has long since been forgiven if not forgotten.

    GM’s quality and warranty have improved to where the differences between manufacturers are minimal, and Toyota is far from the top of that survey.

    GM is in the middle of one of the biggest turnarounds in industrial history. No victims, no excuses, just everyone needing to do their job, concentrating on things over which they have influence and control.

    Yes, government policy has a big effect and unintended consequences in every area they touch. The real question is not whether lean will be enough to keep the Detroit 3 from going the way of Delphi; rather, if is whether the government is the solution or the problem. Whether it is the effects of CAFÉ on the limiting the customer’s choice of vehicles (without reducing our dependence on foreign oil), or government health care limiting the patient’s options for medical treatment, years from now, people are going to be looking back to when there was an American auto industry and when patients were not are the mercy of the government deciding who will be treated and who will die.

  4. Anonymous says

    Great response Mr. Graban!

    I think GM has done the work to bridge the quality and productivity gap. Their huge mistake is not marketing it as such. The average ‘non-automotive’ person does not realize that. I also don’t think they care.

    OMG and an A+ for slipping in a Clinton/Lewinski comment.

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