How to Change a Culture: Lessons From NUMMI

GM and Toyota launched their joint auto plant where GM’s work force had been at its worst. Here’s what happened next. And why.

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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. And, of perhaps less importance at the time, but still acknowledged, it had heard a little about Toyota’s production system, and NUMMI would provide the chance to see it up close and personal; NUMMI would be a chance to learn.

On the other side of the fence, Toyota faced pressure to produce vehicles in the United States. It was already trailing Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and Nissan Motor Co., which were by then building cars in Ohio and Tennessee, respectively. Toyota could have just chosen to go it alone, which would have been quicker and simpler. But Toyota’s aim was to learn, and to learn quickly. What better way than to get started with an existing plant (Fremont), and with a partner helping it navigate unfamiliar waters?

It is important to note, however, that from the beginning, Toyota’s objectives at NUMMI were defined by learning rather than by the kinds of tangible business objectives that typically define a joint venture. And if there’s one thing Toyota knows how to do it is how to learn, especially where learning is most important: down at the operational levels of the company. It was that approach to learning that defined its approach to NUMMI from day 1.

Not surprisingly, NUMMI was an incredible learning opportunity for me personally. Before I could help Toyota teach anything to GM or to anyone else, it had to teach me first. So, starting in late 1983, Toyota put me to work at headquarters and at the Takaoka plant, NUMMI’s “mother plant” that produced the Corolla. I worked on all the major processes of car assembly. Then, working with Japanese colleagues, I helped develop a training program to introduce the Toyota system to the American employees of NUMMI.

At the time, the work force in the old GM Fremont plant was considered to be an extraordinarily “bad” one. Many considered it to be GM’s worst. The work force in those days had a horrible reputation, frequently going out on strike (sometimes wildcat strikes), filing grievance after grievance and even sabotaging quality. Absenteeism routinely ran over 20%. And, oh yes, the plant had produced some of the worst quality in the GM system. Remember, this was the early 1980s. So to be the worst in GM’s system at that time meant you were very, very bad indeed.

Toyota had many concerns about transplanting perhaps the most important aspect of its production system — its way of cultivating employee involvement — into a workplace as poor as Fremont. Toyota wondered how workers with such a bad reputation could support it in building in quality. How would they support the concept and practice of teamwork?

As it turned out, the “militant” work force was not a major obstacle. Many problems did crop up, but they were ultimately overcome. In fact, the union and workers didn’t just accept Toyota’s system, they embraced it with passion. The absenteeism that had regularly reached 20% or more? It immediately fell to a steady 2%. The quality that had been GM’s worst? In just one year, it became GM’s best. All with the exact same workers, including the old troublemakers. The only thing that changed was the production and management system — and, somehow, the culture.

Need a New Way of Thinking? Act Your Way to It

“Okay, so, how did you change the culture? What did you do that changed such a troublesome work force into an excellent one?”

That’s a great question.

It’s one thing to say the culture changed because we put in the Toyota Production System or changed the managers or management system, but it’s another to define exactly what really changed the culture.

The individual who put the concept of “corporate culture” on our collective radar screen was Edgar Schein of MIT’s Sloan School of Management. And, interestingly, there is no one who is more skeptical than Schein about claims of easily making wholesale changes in corporate cultures. Schein teaches that culture is hugely important, but he also argues that you don’t change the culture by trying to directly change the culture.

Trying to capture what I had learned of how the culture was changed at NUMMI, I developed a simple pyramid model that I later found out was almost the same as a model Schein had created much earlier.

The typical Western approach to organizational change is to start by trying to get everyone to think the right way. This causes their values and attitudes to change, which, in turn, leads them naturally to start doing the right things.

What my NUMMI experience taught me that was so powerful was that the way to change culture is not to first change how people think, but instead to start by changing how people behave — what they do. Those of us trying to change our organizations’ culture need to define the things we want to do, the ways we want to behave and want each other to behave, to provide training and then to do what is necessary to reinforce those behaviors. The culture will change as a result.

This is what is meant by, “It’s easier to act your way to a new way of thinking than to think your way to a new way of acting.”

Which leads to the question, How did we change behavior (and, as a consequence, the culture) at NUMMI?

“Stop the Line” (or, What It’s Really Like to Give Workers the Means to Successfully Do Their Jobs)

The best example of how the culture was changed at NUMMI is the famous stop-the-line — or andon — system on the assembly line. All of the GM and NUMMI people who underwent training in Japan experienced learning and working with the stop-the-line system (or some variation of it). One of the decisions to be made in establishing production at the joint venture was whether to install the stop-the-line system. For Toyota, of course, that was no decision at all — it was a given. The andon system epitomizes Toyota’s belief in, and commitment to, developing the means to enable employees to work in a way that “builds in” quality.

A key Toyota tenet is “Respect for People,” the conviction that all employees have the right to be successful every time they do their job. Part of doing their job is finding problems and making improvements. If we as management want people to be successful, to find problems and to make improvements, we have the obligation to provide the means to do so.

When NUMMI was being formed, though, some of our GM colleagues questioned the wisdom of trying to install andon there. “You intend to give these workers the right to stop the line?” they asked. Toyota’s answer: “No, we intend to give them the obligation to stop it — whenever they find a problem.”

In Toyota’s system, each worker on the assembly line knows precisely what his job is. He is given the knowledge and skills to know when he has encountered a problem (an abnormality that prevents him from successfully completing his task), what to do when he’s found such a problem, and exactly what will happen when he notifies his leader about the problem. His team leader will come to provide assistance within his job cycle, or the time available to complete his assigned responsibilities. (Note: The line doesn’t actually stop right away. It halts only after it reaches a certain point — called a “fixed position” — and only after the team leader has made the decision to let it stop.)

That translates into a promise from management to the work force: “Whenever you have a problem completing your standardized work, your team leader will come to your aid within your job cycle.” That’s quite a promise to a work force of a couple thousand whose job cycle is in the neighborhood of one minute. But Toyota learned that that is what it takes to enable workers to build in quality and to be engaged in problem solving and making improvements.

How the NUMMI Way Was Different From the Old Way

That is what changed NUMMI’s culture. Given the opportunity — and challenge — of building in quality, the new-old NUMMI work force could not have been more enthusiastic about the opportunity to show that it could produce quality as well as any work force in the world. Quality, support, ownership — these things were integrated within the design of each job.

Contrast that with my first experience observing work on a Big Three assembly line.

In early 1995 at an assembly plant on the outskirts of Detroit, I observed a worker make a major mistake. A regular automated process was down for the day, so the worker was making do with a work-around. And with the work-around, he managed to attach the wrong part on a car. He quickly realized his mistake, but by then the car had already moved on, out of his work station. That’s when I saw an amazing thing.

There was nothing that the worker could easily do to correct his mistake! Scratch the word “easily” from that. There was nothing at all that he could do. This was far from the NUMMI/Toyota process of making it (1) difficult to make a mistake to begin with; (2) easy to identify a problem or know when a mistake was made; (3) easy in the normal course of doing the work to notify a supervisor of the mistake or problem; and (4) consistent in what would happen next, which is that the supervisor would quickly determine what to do about it.

But for that worker on the Big Three assembly line, there was, practically speaking, nothing he could do about the mistake he had just made. No rope to pull. No team leader nearby to call. A red button was located about 30 paces away. He could walk over and push that button, which would immediately shut down the entire line. He would then indeed have a supervisor come to “help” him. But he probably wouldn’t like the “help” he would get.

So he did nothing. To this day, no one knows what happened there except that worker and me. The contrast with the NUMMI/Toyota process couldn’t have been more dramatic.

What changed the culture at NUMMI wasn’t an abstract notion of “employee involvement” or “a learning organization” or even “culture” at all. What changed the culture was giving employees the means by which they could successfully do their jobs. It was communicating clearly to employees what their jobs were and providing the training and tools to enable them to perform those jobs successfully.

The stop-the-line andon process is just one example of acting the way to thinking, but it is a good one for two reasons. First, it deals with how people do their work right now. For each of us, every day, every moment, work comes at us. How are we equipped to respond? The andon system isn’t just a set of manuals and principles or training — it is how the work is done.

Second, on a practical level, the most important and difficult “cultural shift” that has to occur in a lean manufacturing transformation revolves around the entire concept of problems. What is our attitude toward them? How do we think about them? What do we do when we find them? What do we do when someone else finds and exposes one? The andon process is about building in quality by exposing problems. Sometimes those problems are of our own making. Exposing them can be a very personal and threatening matter.

The Essential Value of Problems

Every person in a supervisory capacity, including hourly team leaders, visited Toyota City for two or more weeks of training at the Takaoka plant. The training included long hours of lectures but, most importantly, practical on-the-job training in which they worked alongside their counterparts to learn what was to be their job back in California. At the end of each training tour, we asked the trainees what they would most want to take back with them to Fremont of all they had seen at Toyota. Their answer was invariably the same: “The ability to focus on solving problems without pointing fingers and looking to place the blame on someone. Here it’s ‘five whys’ [which means simply asking “why?” until reaching the root cause of any problem]. Back home, we’re used to the ‘five whos.’” Call attention to the problem to solve it, or to the behavior to change it, but not to the individual for being “wrong.” That’s not to say the Takaoka trainers weren’t hard on problems. They were. And if problems repeated or if the same individual repeated the same mistake, individuals would be called out — loud and clear.

“Problems” were indeed viewed completely differently. Americans like to respond “no problem” when asked how things are going. One phrase known and used with gusto by every early member of NUMMI was the Japanese word for “no problem,” which, when spoken with a typical American accent, sounded pretty much like “Monday night.” So when Japanese trainers tried to ask how certain problems were being handled, American NUMMI employees could be heard all over the plant cheerily shouting, “Monday night!” The response to this by the Japanese was, “No problem is problem.” There are always problems, or issues that require some kind of “countermeasure” or better way to accomplish a given task. And seeing those problems is the crux of the job of the manager.

The first case I know of a Toyota manager issuing the now-famous Japanese English edict of “No problem is problem!” was Susumu Uchikawa. As general manager of production control — arguably Toyota’s area of most unique operational expertise — Uchikawa had a team of six very smart, midlevel GM managers working for him. Being very smart, young GM managers, they had a ready response whenever Uchikawa asked them to report on how things were proceeding — “No problem!” The last thing they wanted was their boss sticking his nose into their problems. Finally Uchikawa exploded, “No problem is problem! Managers’ job is to see problems!”

The famous tools of the Toyota Production System are all designed around making it easy to see problems, easy to solve problems, and easy to learn from mistakes. Making it easy to learn from mistakes means changing our attitude toward them. That is the lean cultural shift.


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Comments (6)
Elman Lopez Fiallos
I think, the best way the people can change is, first, changing the behavior, then, as a result, changing the culture.   This is a universal method of learning.  Apparently, is simple, but is very complex and difficult issue.
This principle es very important for me, because I am teaching "Quality Management".  Almost all themes realated with quality need a thinking change.
Elman Lopez Fiallos
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John - are you saying (in my words)  automatic imprinted defence mechanisms coupled with an openly accepted belief in 'Logic only Systems' which further provoke egotistical (Fear) based reactions to conditions, subsequently undermine individually perceived comfort zones, due to a lack of congruence to tacit and intuitive knowledge which inhibits not only change efforts organisationally, but also stifles creativity & innovation by knocking confidence; detaching us from an ability to psychologically take ownership and feel empowered, while provoking a tendency to 'Blame' thus generating further negative emotion and poor performance becomes relative to the attitude and approach in leadership. Therefore - what the lean tools do at a psychological level is provide an almost immediate feedback mechanism (day by the hour box scores for P&L, hoshin kanri, 5s, performance monitoring charts etc. as examples) whereby multiple intelligences are satisfied - i.e. the tools work well for the 'People system' at an experiential level.

If that is indeed the case, the culture change realised at NUMMI was surely due to a change in mindset; in belief that happened in the leadership BEFORE they provided the right attitude and approach (partnering with Toyota) (to address ego's) and BEFORE they developed the conviction required to put in place visually managed systems (providing the feedback required at a psychological level) that enabled their workforce to 'Do' something different! (and thus have experience that enabled a change in the mindset of others?). 

It's ok to say 'Doing' changes the way we think, as it's factually correct, our Emotional Environmental Experience (EEE©) imprints via neural synaptic stimulus and growth, (but it's still only one half of a whole picture we have to keep in balance - in context). 

If the 'beliefs' are not right, the levels of understanding, the buy-in & ownership required in leaders, isn't there, the conditions in which 'Doing' (stopping the line and being empowered) can be experienced will not be provided ... and are historically not provided!!!! 

.... the last 35 years from QC to OE, of the 'Tools first' (at the hands of consultants) to tick the logical box of a short term ROI is testimony to the fact Leaders do not perceive a WIIFM factor in addressing change at this level. 

We've all heard 'we don't have time for this Cultural right brain, soft, pink and fluffy crap in Business, we're focused on the bottom line! End of month out of the door is the only driving force i'm worried about sonny! .... 

and thus the world turns..... shame really, recognising there are ways to address attitude up-front (dare I mention PCC) enables the type of changes seen at NUMMI to be made anywhere.

So surely this is all down to changing a 'way of thinking' first - as it was the way of thinking, that came before the action that saw NUMMI evolve.  Ultimately this is all down to the mindset - the 'belief' - in leaders ..... and yet we STILL talk about the application of tools even in relation to culture and attitudes to satisfy that ROI box ticking exercise based on our 'Judgement' (emotional) of the logic only data that pours from our measurement systems, unable to 'Account' for the 'people system' - which is ultimately 'Root cause' of Profit. 

Isn't it about time we stopped banging on the 'Tools change culture drum' and realised it is the assumption inherent to our standard approach to financial management, recoveries, forecasting and every other practice that involves 'assumption / prediction' that ultimately inhibits the western worlds capability to change - hell, if we have to satisfy Sarbanes Oxley, that's fine, but don't let it dictate our psychological conditions and undermine performance - just run two books - one that works for people and one that ticks the box for the outside world.
"Cracks in the transparent matrix around us reveal where it is."  (I cannot remember who said this.)

Mike Rother