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.

Reading Time: 17 min 


Permissions and PDF

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.


Reprint #:


More Like This

Add a comment

You must to post a comment.

First time here? Sign up for a free account: Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.

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
The Term “Lean Production” is 25 Years Old – Some Thoughts on the Original John Krafcik Article | Lean Blog
[…] article builds on two years he spent working as an engineer at NUMMI, the GM-Toyota joint venture plant that started operations in 1984. Krafcik experienced the […]
John Shook – #Lean Production Meets #LeanStartup — Lean Blog
[…] MIT Sloan article  […]
The Worst Operation . . . | John R Childress . . . Rethinking
[…] culture change that wasn’t designed as a culture change. In fact, according to Toyota manager John Shook in an MIT Sloan Management Review article, culture change was not the goal, but the natural by-product of how people were treated and a new […]
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