GM’s Success in Copying Toyota’s Shopfloor System?


Op-Ed Contributor – G.M.'s Secret Success –

I agree with the basic premise of this piece that not all is rotten in GM. For example, I rather like some of their recent products — design and execution (Chevy Malibu/Saturn Aura, Solstice/Sky, Cadillac products). I won't go so far as defending CEO Rick Wagoner, as the piece does.

The one detail that jumped out at me:

The company has made enormous strides in imitating and improving upon Toyota's lean manufacturing system. At G.M. plants, gone are the mass assembly techniques pioneered by Henry Ford. Instead, workers are organized in small Japanese-style teams and encouraged to make sure problems are fixed on the spot rather than passed down the line. The quality gap between G.M. and Toyota has been closed.

GM has been copying Toyota on the shopfloor (or trying) for decades. That was part of my work at a GM plant in the mid-90's. Even if a lot of progress has been made, the shopfloor success alone won't save the company.

I'm looking for comments from current or recent GM shopfloor folks (salaried or UAW). Do you believe or agree with the bolded statement about workers being empowered to stop the line and participate in quality improvement? Is the author of the NY Times piece reflecting reality or embellishing it? I'm certain they have andon cords in place, but how has the culture changed at the gemba? How do supervisors react when an employee suspects a problem (or admits making an error)?

It's ironic, also, that Henry Ford is bashed as “mass production” when Toyota learned so much from Henry Ford (the man) and eventually Ford (the company) got away from Henry's principles. So to say Henry Ford's principles are “gone” doesn't seem very accurate. Henry Ford was reputed to say something like “Why is it when I hire a pair of hands, a brain comes attached?” It that quote was accurate, that aspect of Henry Ford-ism is something I'd hope would be gone from a modern GM (or Ford Motor Company, for that matter…. or any workplace).

Some of my questioning/cynicism comes from this earlier story about a Ford plant where (due to the culture) the workers were afraid to pull the andon cord.

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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. This comment was sent to me by the retired UAW worker I interviewed in an earlier Podcast.

    He wrote:

    Well as far as small teams go I am sure they do have them are they empowered????? I would have to hear it form the workers before I belived it. My guess it is just on paper. As far as fixing issues as they occur there again I would have to see proof. I would want to see computer print out of down time issues. My guess it is very limited and limited to serious quality issues. My guess is that they are still not addressing the Little ones that always add up to BIG ones.
    I would be real interested in seeing the OWI’S and the born date and revision dates on them!!!
    Lets take a tour thru any plant with a stop watch and we will know by the end of the visit. (The stop watch will more then likely not be needed).

  2. I think Ford stopped being customer focused a long time ago.

    Adapting to change, i.e.-refining a corporate culture and aligning it with today’s economic imperatives-is one of the toughest jobs that a company will ever undertake. Yet it could possibly be the difference between weathering the downturn-or not; or between surviving and thriving.

    Most companies have difficulties dealing with change because a company’s culture forms over a period of many years. Typically, the culture is defined by the dominant functions. It is then reinforced as new people are hired, in part, because they fit the prevailing culture.

    Over time everyone gets comfortable and resists change.

    Within the automotive industry, finance and manufacturing long ago became the dominant functions, which drove the company culture and and ultimately dictated the products that the company made. How else do you explain the Pontiac Aztec?

    While the Big Threes quality is now approaching Toyotas, the cars they design and build are not based on what we want. They were designed and built based on what the company wants to build.

    Remember: The dealers are not end point in the value stream.

  3. Copying toyota for GM means giving one worker so much work that that they mess up the product, and then they ad someone else to just get the job done as cheaply as possible. It’s not quality related..just like their cars are an example of getting the job done as cheaply as possible. Just nice enough to keep the majority of owners from complaining. I had never bought foreign products until i got a job working for GM and saw what “Lean Manufacturing” did to them. Now it’s just German vehicles in my garage.


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