NPR on the “End of the Line” at NUMMI and My Story About an Interviewee


nummiHere's some Saturday morning listening… a story from yesterday's “All Things Considered” on the “End of the Line” at the NUMMI plant (the GM / Toyota joint venture that will produce its last car next week).

The story highlights some of the problems the old Fremont CA plant had before GM closed it the first time in 1982:

  • Workers drinking on the job
  • Workers having sex in the plant
  • Bad absenteeism, compounded by management finding random drunks at the bar across the street to come fill in on the line
  • Workers hating management so much that they sabotaged vehicles

The root cause isn't only “bad workers.” A lot of it was due to “bad management system,” something that changed dramatically when NUMMI was formed with Toyota management principles and practices. As with many things in life, it was complicated. In this post, I'll also share my personal experiences with one of the leaders who is quoted in the story.

NUMMI, of course, quickly became a huge success after it reopened with mainly the same workers, but with a new management system and new managers.

But why didn't GM (the rest of GM) learn more of the lessons? There were certainly attempts. In my second year at the GM Livonia Engine Plant (in my hometown, in Michigan), a new plant manager was brought in with NUMMI experience — a man named Larry Spiegel. He is quoted in the NPR piece:

One of the early efforts to spread Lean and TPS was at the Van Nuys factory, also in CA. But the efforts, failed, as Spiegel explained (the term “commando” was given to the GM people who were brought it to learn from NUMMI.

“The lack of receptiveness to change was so deep,” said Larry Spiegel, one of the commandos who struggled to transform the Van Nuys plant. “There were too many people convinced they didn't need to change.”

Spiegel said that even though GM had threatened to close the plant, workers believed it would never happen. And they stuck with their old ways.

At our engine plant, our quality and productivity (not to mention morale) were at the bottom of the barrel, even by GM standards. Spiegel spent months walking the plant floor (the “gemba”). He listened to people, he talked with them. This was a very different leadership style than before. I mean, he was the Plant Manager, with (I think) about 800 people reporting to him. But he took the time to go and see, a lesson from NUMMI.

Being a young, impatient engineer, I was ready for change. I knew the old management mindsets weren't working, I believed in the promise of Lean and TPS — although we couldn't call it “lean” and we didn't make much mention of Toyota.

I asked Larry, at one point, when were we really going to start fixing things… let's go! As I recall his answer, Larry said something like:

“I know what we have to do here (based on experiences at NUMMI and the Warren Transmission Plant). But the people here don't that I know. I have to take time to build respect, to let them know I've heard them and I've seen the problems first hand.”

That encounter, and Larry's leadership, made a huge impact on me in my young career. Even though I left for MIT in 1997, I kept in touch with people and was happy to hear that the Livonia plant made great strides in the first few years, moving up to the top quartile from the bottom of the barrel. They were improving quality and productivity. They had a new engine program assigned to them.

But, the plant became a victim of GM's bankruptcy and is now on the closure blocks, if it isn't already closed.

Here is a Google satellite view of the plant. That parking lot used to be really full, both day and night shift. Whenever I've been home in recent years, the parking lot was always pretty empty after 4 PM. One sign of the sad decline of a plant that had some great leadership and WAS learning from NUMMI.

Here is Episode #403 of “This American Life” this weekend.

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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. Mr Kobayashi-

    I haven’t heard of your book before. Scanning through it on Amazon, the “truth” has at least one error on the first page I looked at (page 35). You say Womack and Jones started “The Lean Institute” (which isn’t the name of either of their organizations — the Lean Enterprise Institute or the Lean Enterprise Academy, Jones in the UK). You say they have “sold their advice to all companies that accepted to pay for it.” That’s hardly accurate, either. So a book that purports to be “the truth” is sloppy on a few details on the first page Amazon showed me.

  2. I was hired at NUMMI and starting working in the Stamping plant on November 7th, 1985; Larry Speigle was the manager of the Stamping plant then. I was 24 years old and although I didn’t have much ‘career life’ yet, I was impressed with Larry’s embrace meant of the Toyota principles, especially the principle that ‘the people are the most important asset’ if the organization.

    That first Christmas holiday I shared with my ‘NUMMI Family’ impressed me, as we had a voluntary gift exchange. We drew names of other participants, then bought a gift for that person with a moderate spending limit; Larry Drew my name. I did not know this, of course, until we exchanged our gifts, the last work day before the holiday period began. When I opened my gift, I found, to my surprise, 2 items that were perfect for me, a ski and ski pole carrier and a hand warmer. I was surprised because, although Larry had come to the floor and talked to me problems I was having in my specific role, we had never yet spoken about my interests and hobbies. He had taken the time to review my employment application and see what I had listed for my hobbies, snow skiing being one of them. I knew then, that this man would take what he was learning, back to GM when his NUMMI assignment was completed, and passionately work to improve and change the then failing GM culture. I stayed at NUMMI until it’s closing in 2010 . . . what a sad day that was.


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