Alternative History: GM Uses Lean to Remain #1 in the Auto Industry


ChatGPT is still all the rage. It's one thing to treat the chatbot like Google. But I recently learned about some capabilities that are far more interesting — the ability to “simulate” events that never happened in real life (a.k.a. “the original timeline” or OTL as it's referred to in the “alternative history” genre).

In OTL, General Motors started its formal partnership with Toyota at the NUMMI plant in 1984. GM had the opportunity to learn from Toyota, but the company didn't exactly rush to emulate the Toyota Production System. Causes of this included arrogance, denial, and being pretty set in their ways.

Check out these two podcast episodes with Steve Bera (Part 1 and Part 2). He was one of the GM leaders who was sent to learn at NUMMI and speaks about why GM wasn't receptive to the Toyota way of leading and improving.

GM came around, but they lost a lot of time… and they fell behind Toyota and other automakers.

My original prompt to ChatGPT was this:

“Simulate a scenario where General Motors learns enough from NUMMI so that they effectively copy the Toyota Production System and remain #1 in market share.”

If this happened, I would never blogged about a book called How Toyota Became #1.

The first draft was interesting. I made a few suggestions to the bot, and this is the “final” result.

An Alternative Timeline Where GM Remains #1

In 1989, General Motors (GM) CEO Roger Smith was deeply affected by the release of the documentary film “Roger & Me,” which portrayed the negative impact of GM's plant closures and layoffs on the city of Flint, Michigan. The film served as a wake-up call for Smith, and he realized that the company needed to change its approach to manufacturing in order to better serve its customers and its communities.

In response, Smith decided to study the Toyota Production System (TPS), which is a methodology used by Toyota to achieve efficiency, quality, and productivity. He sent executives and engineers to spend significant time studying TPS at the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) joint venture between Toyota and GM, which was opened in 1984. They learned the principles of just-in-time production, continuous improvement, and standardization, which were key to Toyota's success.

With this knowledge, GM began to implement a new system called the GM Management System (GMMS) in its own factories and plants across the country. The GMMS is based on the principles of the TPS and emphasizes teamwork, employee empowerment, and respect for people. This involved changes to the company's management structure and culture, such as giving front-line workers more decision-making authority and providing them with the training and tools they need to improve their work processes. GM also emphasized collaboration and better relations with the United Auto Workers, the union representing GM employees, involving them in the implementation of the GMMS.

As a result of these efforts, GM saw improvements in efficiency, quality, and productivity, which enabled the company to produce vehicles at a lower cost and with fewer defects. This helped GM to better compete with Toyota and other automakers in terms of price and quality, and GM retained its position as the top automaker in terms of market share.

Interestingly, other American automakers such as Chrysler, Ford, and others also came to visit GM plants to learn from their new management system, GMMS and how they were able to collaborate with their unionized workforce to achieve success.

By creating and implementing the GMMS, GM was able to improve its manufacturing processes, increase efficiency, reduce cost and improve the quality of its cars. The company was able to maintain its position as the top automaker in the global automotive market, and also became a benchmark for other American automotive companies to follow.

Through this experience, Smith became a humbled leader, understanding the importance of listening to the voices of the communities and workers impacted by the company's decisions, and making sure that the company's management system is aligned with the values of fairness, respect and empowerment.

As somebody who grew up in the Detroit area, starting my career at General Motors, I sure wish it had turned out this way.

Here are some of my blog posts about that GM experience in the OTL:

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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.


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