In Spring 2010, New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., the famed joint venture experiment by Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Co., will close its doors. As someone who was there at its launch and witnessed a striking story of phenomenal company culture reinvention, I am often asked: “What did you really do to change the culture at NUMMI so dramatically, so quickly?”
I could answer the question from high altitude by simply saying, “We instituted the Toyota production and management systems.” But in the end that doesn’t explain much. A better way to answer is to describe more specifically what we actually did that resulted in turning the once dysfunctional disaster — GM’s Fremont, California, plant — into a model manufacturing plant with the very same workers.
And describing what we did, and what worked so profoundly, says some interesting things about what “culture” is in the first place.
Backstory: Why NUMMI Began, and How It Fared
The Leading Question
How can managers change the culture of their organization?
- Start by changing what people do rather than how they think.
- “It’s easier to act your way to a new way of thinking than to think your way to a new way of acting.”
- Give employees the means by which they can successfully do their jobs.
- Recognize that the way that problems are treated reflects your corporate culture.
Toyota hired me in late 1983 to work on the Toyota side of its new venture with GM. I was assigned to a newly formed group at the company’s Toyota City headquarters in Japan to develop and deliver training programs to support its impending overseas expansion. All of this was just happening. NUMMI didn’t even have a name yet. The agreement with the United Auto Workers union was yet to be signed. There weren’t yet any employees of NUMMI, nor even any managers. NUMMI wasn’t successful; it wasn’t famous. It was just a dream.
Why was the joint venture attempted? GM, for its part, had a few very tangible business objectives that it thought NUMMI could address. It didn’t know how to make a small car profitably. It wanted to put an idle plant and work force back on line.