The Simpsons Slams American Cars, Robots, or Roger Smith?


I've always been a huge Simpsons fan, even if the show has gotten less funny in the past few years (flame away on that topic, if you must). The beginning of the this week's episode made me chuckle a bit.

For those who can't see the video (those darned oppressive masters of the corporate firewall!), it's an intro to a histrionic news piece – with Kent Brockman – about a coming total eclipse being the end of the world.

In the clip I extracted here from, the fall of industry is illustrated by a group of robots building a car on an assembly line. At the end of the line, a robot stamps “Made in America” on the hood and the car promptly falls apart.

So, it's not really a slam on all American cars (or shouldn't be). Well, the Simpsons producers and writers probably meant it as such. It should really be a slam against companies who had “visions” of a “lights out factory” where robots dominated and people were an expense that wasn't needed or wanted. Compare that to Toyota, a company that wasn't as automated as, say, General Motors, and invested more in people and their shop floor “kaizen” and problem solving skills…

As this excellent article points out:

By the late 1980s, GM's chairman, Roger Smith, had figured out that his company had something to learn from the Japanese. He just didn't know what it was. He poured billions into new, heavily automated U.S. factories – including an effort to build an experimental “lights out” factory that had almost no hourly workers. He entered a joint venture with Toyota to reopen an old GM factory in California, called New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., or NUMMI. The idea was that GM managers could go to NUMMI to see up close what the “secret” of Toyota's assembly system was. Smith also launched what he promoted as an entirely new car company, Saturn, which was meant to pioneer both a more cooperative relationship with UAW workers and a new way of selling cars.

None of these was a bad idea. But GM took too long to learn the lessons from these experiments – good or bad. The automation strategy fell on its face because the robots didn't work properly, and the cars they built struck many consumers as blandly styled and of poor quality. NUMMI did give GM managers valuable information about Toyota's manufacturing and management system, which a team of MIT researchers would later call “lean production.” But too many of the GM managers who gained knowledge from NUMMI were unable to make an impact on GM's core North American business.

Anyway, I've probably over-analyzed a short video that gave me a sad chuckle.

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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. I toured the GM Roger Smith lights-out “factory of the future” in about 1988. It was a GM Saginaw Steering Gear (now Delphi) plant in Saginaw Michigan. It produced a specific steering system component, so I wouldn’t say the product was very advanced, although I’m sure it had critical machining operations.

    As I remember, the plant was not running, or was running at a very limited rate when I was there. The lights were on of course, but there was not too much to see, other than what looked like an idled factory. I remember that a large amount of money went into this industrial experiment and the floor space was considerable.

    The “factory of the future” is now the “factory of the past”, as I reflect when I drive past on on I-75 on the way to northern Michigan.


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