Reader Question: GM and Lean


From Devin, a graduate student, posted with his permission:

“I'm an operations management student who is writing a report on lean manufacturing at GM. However, the more I research, the more I find that there's far more to write about with regard to what GM is not doing than what it is.

I guess my question is, would you agree that GM has simply applied the aspects of lean that most conveniently fit its work culture? I mean, I look for examples of lean at GM, and all my research really pulls up is things like a kanban system at a Saturn plant or the use of the “five whys” for a process improvement of some sort.

It seems to me that these aspects of lean are simple enough to implement that they don't really require the cultural change of something like standardized work, but they're enough for the company to see some moderate improvements that it becomes content with, and as a result, causes the company not to explore any of the other aspects of lean.”

Any GM folks care to chime in, even anonymously? Is this a fair question? How would you respond from your experiences?

This is also a classic Lean adoption question that could apply to other companies. Do you try to adopt everything from Toyota or just the pieces that don't challenge your old thinking too much?

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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. Here’s a lean idea: go to the gemba. Instead of writing about something you haven’t seen by researching the writing of others who haven’t seen it either, go find yourself a GM plant and pay them a visit.

  2. Good point, anonymous — going to the gemba is always preferable. But, the intent there is as a management method. This student has a different assignment — writing a paper.

    Can a student not write a research paper about Africa without going there first hand?

    If anyone would be willing to host the student on a tour, email me via the link in the left hand column of the blog and I’ll put you in touch.

  3. Actually it sounds like Devin has a very good start understanding what the topic of the paper should be. Devin can study the writings of many experts and scholars (a literature review is in order) and do a meta analysis of the situation at GM. I think after reading the Womack & Jones series, and the Liker series he will be in a position to understand that the tools are not what should be studied to understand Lean. GM is trying, but they definately are not what I would consider past the beginning stages of trying to understand Lean.

  4. I’ll take a stab at Devlin’s last request “Do you try to adopt everything from Toyota or just the pieces that don’t challenge your old thinking too much?”. I think GM attempted the later, specifically they hired about 25-30Toyota mid to senior level managers many years ago (to incorporate the Toyota way). Needless to say, not a single Toyota manager is there and nearly all left within two years. Lean is a bit like pregnancy….you are or you aren’t. Not much of a middle ground.

  5. Having worked for GM for many years, I can assure you that GM has made tremendous strides in implementing lean.

    Every organization should have a lean system that fits their work culture. You just can’t copy what Toyota does. Many people have tried that before. Toyota has 50+ years ingraining into there soul. Until it become natural it must always be nurtured. This requires a lot of hard work and continual review and correction. It also has to fit the culture and history of the organization.

    There are areas of excellence and areas that need improvement within GM.

    Look at the Autoline Detroit archives and there is a broadcast that gives a comparison of workers per unit. In this measure GM places ahead of Toyota.

    The Harbour report shows the productivity improvements that GM has made over the years. This reflects the impact of implementing GMS, (GM’s Lean). So we are making progress but understand there is much left to accomplish.

    We also understand that we will be near were we are suppose to be when people start to write about our production system.

  6. evin,

    You might want to check out these sites. Hopefully they are helpful.

    ” REL=”nofollow”> Link

    ” REL=”nofollow”> Link

    If you can get a copy also review:

    Automotive Design & Production 01Aug2007

  7. Devin,

    One addtional item for you to review. Learning Through Alliances: General Motors and NUMMI by Andrew C. Inkpen (California Management Review Vol 47, No 4 Summer 2005)


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