John Shook: Purpose, Process, People

Like many of us, John Shook has been commenting in his column about GM at a precipice seemingly of its own making. One of the questions he has addressed in a couple of columns is “What did GM learn from NUMMI?” or perhaps more precisely, “Why didn’t GM learn from NUMMI?”

John’s latest column, titled Purpose, Process, People, points out rather bluntly:

My answer to that question remains that GM actually learned far, far more than most people realize about process but didn’t get very far with the people part.

In an earlier column, John raises the possibility that perhaps GM and Toyota each view the world through different lenses of vastly differing purpose (what I could call core values, the things that aren’t written down, they just are within an organization).

Yes, GM wants to survive — hence the humbling appearances on Capitol Hill by Wagoner and the two other Detroit CEOs. Yet had GM been seeking long-term survival a la Toyota, it would have made different decisions all along. GM wants to survive, all right, it wants to survive so it can continue to make money. Toyota on the other hand, wants to make money to survive.

Think about that: Toyota makes money to survive; the Detroit 3 exist (survive) to make money. Those contrasting senses of purpose will take you down very different paths.

This conclusion lines up perfectly with GM’s behavior regarding their NUMMI opportunity.

…  And so it went — Toyota running NUMMI operations, GM selling Novas while dispatching people to NUMMI to learn.

… [by 1994] at least, GM still didn’t know how to make a small car profitably and still didn’t understand TPS. And here we are today. So the question remains: why not?

Why not indeed?

So we have a situation where Toyota is running a GM car plant, building an excellent small car. GM seems to have been treating it as a factory, with an ROI, rather than for what it really was: A learning laboratory for the GM as a whole. Yes, they sent thousands of GM people there “to learn” and then brought them back into their old work environments and what? Somehow expected these smart people to transform the company?

Here is what I think happened.

NUMMI was a factory. So who do you send to a factory?

You send factory managers. You send line managers. You send supervisors. You send people who have jobs in a factory so they can work with their NUMMI counterparts and learn from them. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

And, as a sidebar to all of this, what was Toyota learning? They were learning how to transplant the TPS outside of Japan. They were learning how to teach their system to people who didn’t grow up in it.

Let’s look at the process Steven Spear outlines in Learning to Lead at Toyota. In this case, an experienced, seasoned senior leader comes from a U.S. auto company to Toyota. They need to teach him “how to lead at Toyota” and they need to do it reasonably quickly.

They don’t sit him down to Death By PowerPoint orientations. They don’t have him go through the financial. (at least not right away). They don’t put him in classes. And most importantly, they didn’t have him shadow another factory manager to “learn the job.”

Instead, they send him to the shop floor to, essentially, learn to be a Team Leader – a senior hourly Team Member. He has to un-learn how to provide the answers, and learn how to guide people to their own solutions. He has to learn to let go of the goals and targets and understand that those goals belong to the Team trying to meet them, not the boss. His job is simply to help them push their capabilities.

So what would it have taken for GM to have a chance to “get” what the Toyota System is all about?

Where was Roger Smith? Where were the other executives from Detroit? Ironically, this time period really marked the beginning of GM’s decline. My conjecture was that NUMMI was “a factory” and these senior corporate leaders felt they had nothing to learn there that could not be picked up with a tour and a briefing. It was profitable, they were sending “their people” to learn why. Good ‘nuf.

Actually, this pattern happens in nearly every “lean manufacturing implementation” out there. The senior leadership is “committed” to the point where they are willing to hire the experts and have them teach people how to “be lean.” But, in truth, this is about changing the way the company is run. Very few “lean implementations” succeed without a transition in top leadership. Of those which do succeed, few of them survive the next leadership transition unless that person was carefully developed within the system.

Kaizen is a process of learning, and only people can learn.

4 Replies to “John Shook: Purpose, Process, People”

  1. Great article Mark. But now I’m feeling depressed. The owners of my company gave me the responsibility to “implement lean”. Two weeks ago I taught the owner and Plant Manager how to do a Gemba walk. They said “Great idea, we will get back to you when we figure out what metrics we want posted to help us ask questions on our walk.” I have not heard from them since.

    Don’t get me wrong, they do support my efforts. But it seems a little overwhelming to me to think I might need to change the way the owner manages the company. He created the company from nothing 30 years ago……..

  2. Mark,

    Are there any books/articles on NUMMI? Preferably from the point of view of a frustrated GM person who learned and could not impliment it in Detriot?


    1. I don’t know of any books specifically about GM’s experience with NUMMI, just anecdotal stories. But that would be an opportunity for someone to dig in, do the research, and actually document the relationship, wouldn’t it? 🙂 It would be an interesting story.

      A Google search turns up some interesting articles and references, including John Shook interviewing a veteran of the time on precisely the question.

  3. Not sure whether GM makes a good service to itself my having Toyota as their main rival skipping cultural and traditional barriers. There’re many companies, for example in Germany, produce high quality cars based on their cultural friendly systems. They can learn from their competitors, however, they do not clone the system. Unless it’s something original, the system may not work even if others are so successful using it.
    If the back of our minds is the golden age of post-war II, let’s admit we are in different world.

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