Mental Models and How We View the Gemba & Workers: GM & Dell


Regular readers know I started my career at General Motors from 1995 to 1997. After graduate school at MIT, I took a job at Dell, Inc. in 1999. At the time, Dell was at the peak of its reputation in the business world and they were inundated with requests for tours. As a staff member, I was one of the volunteers who would give tours to visitors. I led tours for Wall Street investment bank leaders, former Rep. J.C. Watts from Oklahoma, and a group of GM leaders and UAW representatives.

Unfortunately, most of the manufacturing visitors were, I think, looking for some sort of secret sauce they could copy to become “the Dell of their market.”

The auto industry visitors, for example, wanted to be able to build and deliver “build to order” cars to customers within 5 days (the amount of time it took Dell, generally, to deliver a PC to a customer). The auto industry is still working toward this goal. But one story from GM came back to me the other day and I don't think I've told it on this blog.

During the GM tour, the visitors saw the PC assembly cells where, as is common and necessary in the electronics industry, workers were wearing antistatic “ESD straps” (as pictured at left). These straps kept workers grounded so that static discharge didn't zap circuit boards or other electronics. This is a precaution that was not necessary on the automotive assembly line.

One of the senior UAW leaders  I had been talking to during the tour got pulled me aside when he saw the assembly cells and he asked with a concerned tone:

“How does the company get away with tethering the workers to their stations?”

My jaw probably hit the floor. The question said A LOT about the mental models of the auto industry. Yes, it was a UAW leader who asked the question (I remember the moment vividly).

The auto industry mindsets and mental models (often unspoken) seemed to be:

  • People don't want to work very hard
  • People won't work unless you make them
  • People will wander off unless you somehow tie them down
  • The UAW didn't trust GM to treat workers respectfully

This is clearly “Theory X” thinking at its strongest and most vivid. It says a lot about why the “Detroit Three” were so messed up, doesn't it?

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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. Our Mental Models say so much about our beliefs and behavior which is why we need to change them first. Without changing to new mental models any behavior change that occurs doesn’t stand a chance of sustaining.

    Tough to do in a big organization like GM with a long standing culture which is one of the reasons why Lean or any large change takes so long to implement.

  2. I wonder if perhaps your mental model was incorrect in this case. My suspicion is that the union leader was wondering about the tethering not because he thought it was a good idea, but rather because it seemed like an example of the poor work conditions that happen in an un-unionized My personal mental model suggests that the union leader saw this as a possible entry point for an union to enter this factory – “Workers of Dell unite, all you have to lose is your strap!”

    • Thanks for the comment, BD. I don’t think I wrote the post as clearly as possible. The UAW leader was clearly non-plussed (I guess I thought that would be assumed). He didn’t think that was a “best practice” to take back to GM.

      I will tweak the post to make that more clear.

      I do think many of the mental models were actually shared by company and union leadership. The “people don’t want to work” mental model was just reacted to differently. Management said “we’ll try to make you” and the union would say “you can’t make us.”


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