The Book “Rivethead” and GM’s Demeaning “Quality Cat” Mascot

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I've updated and am republishing an old 2005 blog post that I wrote about a former GM assembly worker, Ben Hamper, who has some very funny stories in his book, Rivethead: Tales From the Assembly Line.

One story, in particular, is from the Flint Assembly plant, circa the 1980s (the era when all cars coming off of the Hamtramck assembly line allegedly went to one of two places — either “major repair” or “minor repair”).

In the book, Hamper wrote about the weirdest “quality” initiative I've ever heard of, the “Quality Cat.” A cat named “Howie Makem.” You cannot make this stuff up.

Here is an LA Times review of the book with a few lines about story I remember well from my reading:

He wrote about Howie Makem, General Motors' “Quality Cat,” a mascot who patroled the factory, exhorting the workers to give their all for the company. “Howie was an insult,” Hamper fumes, “an affront to our intelligence. What GM was basically saying was, ‘These people are nimwits, they can only relate to a man dressed up as a cat.' Once that sunk in, you really felt demeaned.”

This is a longer excerpt:

Howie Makem was to become the messianic embodiment of the Company's new Quality drive. A livin', breathin' propaganda vessel assigned to spur on the troops. Go ahead and laugh, I know I did. Just for a moment, imagine the probing skull session that took place in some high-level think tank the day Howie was first brought to mention.

“You know, slogans on coffee cups just ain't gettin' it, Bill.”

“You're absolutely right, Ted. We need something more dynamic. More upbeat.”

“Hey, why don't we give the men their own kitty cat!”

“Kitty cat? Hmmm, I like it! A large kitty cat! Ted, you're a genius!”

Howie Makem stood five feet nine. He had light brown fur, long synthetic whiskers and a head the size of a Datsun. He wore a long red cape emblazoned with the letter Q for Quality. A very magical cat, Howie walked everywhere on his hind paws. Cruelly, Howie was not entrusted with a d*ck.

Howie would make the rounds poking his floppy whiskers in and out of each department. A “Howie sighting” was always cause for great fanfare. The workers would scream and holler and jump up and down on their workbenches whenever Howie drifted by. Howie Makem may have begun as just another Company ploy to prod the tired legions, but most of us ran with the joke and soon Howie evolved into a crazy phenomenon.

And Hamper didn't like empty slogans any more than W. Edwards Deming did:

Then there were the electronic message boards all over the plant. “It was blatant propaganda. They made no bones about it. The boards would flash slogans like ‘Squeezing rivets is fun.' My feeling was: OK, it's fun? Then you get down here, and you run the gun.”

Here is a Today show piece about Hamper from 1986:

I read this as a paperback a long time ago. I might buy the Kindle version to read through again.

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