February 25, 2016
Everyone says that we should learn from our failures; but too often, those failures are kept behind-the-scenes in the one department where it happened, and swept under the rug.
Fortunately, we have This American Life (T.A.L.) to highlight an example to the contrary. T.A.L. recently updated their 2010 story on NUMMI, the joint venture between Toyota and General Motors to manufacture cars in Fremont, CA.
Listening to it again, I was struck by the importance NUMMI placed on behavioral change, and maintaining a bias towards action to improve how GM designed and produced autos. These priorities felt aligned with our Six Principles to Work Differently.
If you don’t have an hour to spend on the T.A.L. podcast (though you really should!), here’s a 1-minute synopsis:
In the early 1980’s, Toyota wanted to start producing cars in the United States. To do so, they joined forces with their competitor GM. The partnership would benefit both parties; Toyota would learn how to navigate unions and American management styles, while GM would learn Toyota’s secrets to building high quality cars at low prices.
They selected GM’s Fremont plant for NUMMI’s location, which was also considered to have “the worst workforce in the automobile industry” by United Auto Workers. (Sex, drugs, alcohol and gambling were all rampant on the job…yikes!)
The Fremont workers traveled to Japan for a full immersion in Toyota’s Production System.
To the surprise of many, their production quality improved rapidly; GM’s rough-around-the-edges crew had adapted well to Toyota’s ways!
NUMMI could have been the start of a resurgence of the American automotive industry, but GM never fully realized its potential. They struggled to implement the same system across their factories. In 2010, Tesla purchased the Fremont plant.
The primary lesson to take away from this story is Toyota’s deep empowerment of assembly line workers to identify problems, devise solutions, and get management to quickly make changes.
It’s a mindset you should adopt, even in your seemingly different workplace of 2015.
Here are four ways to equip and engage front-line employees to make continuous improvements:
“Everyone’s expected to be looking for ways to improve the production process all the time””
1. Do Not Treat Quality as an End-State
“I can’t remember any time in my working life where somebody asked for my ideas to solve the problem.”
2. Expect innovation to happen at every level
“When a worker makes a suggestion that saves money, he gets a bonus of a few hundred dollars or so”
3. Recognize and reward creative thinking
“[A GM VP] said to an employee, ‘I want you to go there with cameras and take a picture of every square inch. And whatever you take a picture of, I want it to look like that in our plant.’ [Of course, Toyota’s approach] is not something you can copy, and you can’t even take a photograph of it.”