Point/Counterpoint: NUMMI vs. Uddevalla

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The opening sentence and central thesis of Paul Adler and Robert Cole’s article are difficult to disagree with — “A consensus is emerging that the hallmark of tomorrow’s most effective organizations will be their capacity to learn” [see “Designed for Learning: A Tale of Two Auto Plants,” Spring 1993, reprint 3436]. In these times of uncertainty and change, processes of organizational learning are certainly of crucial interest. Adler and Cole have a much more specific mission than highlighting this point, however. They seem to suggest that there is only one way of organizing effective learning in labor-intensive production of relatively standardized goods, by using revamped and intensified Taylorism —rigid standardization, minute subdivision of labor, short-cycle tasks, and narrow job roles.1 Is their argument that we are living in an age with no alternatives and no choices for production design and work organization?

They support their far-reaching contention by comparing two radically different auto plants — the Toyota-managed NUMMI plant in California and Volvo’s small-scale Uddevalla factory. NUMMI is the successful marriage of rigorous Japanese management to a unionized American workforce. The basic production technology is the conventional assembly line; the novel features are the intense work standardization, the extensive reliance on worker input in this process, and the drive for continuous, low-cost improvement. Uddevalla’s production design was completely different. Instead of one long line, forty small parallel teams built complete cars. At regular production pace, individual cycle times ranged from 1.5 to 3.5 hours — a stark contrast to the sixty-second standards on the assembly lines. In their brief description of Uddevalla, Adler and Cole mention that there were eight assembly teams in the plant. If that figure were correct, the output of the plant would have been very low (5,000 to 6,000 cars per year). In fact, there were eight teams in every assembly shop, but the whole plant had six assembly shops and a materials shop. The precise number of teams changed as a consequence of constant efforts to improve work patterns. The longest work cycles, 3.5 hours, were for the mini-teams only.

Uddevalla’s whole-car assembly was reminiscent of craft work, which some observers label “neocraft.”2 But the context was very different from any craft culture. Materials were collected in individual kits in a largely automated process using sophisticated new technology.


1. Much of the same argument has been presented before. See:

P. Adler, “The ‘Learning Bureaucracy’: New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc.,” ed. Barry Staw and Larry Cummings, Research in Organizational Behavior (Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1992); and

P. Adler, “Time-and-Motion Regained,” Harvard Business Review, January–February 1993, pp. 97–108.

2. J.P. Womack, D.T. Jones, and D. Roos, The Machine That Changed the World (New York: Rawson Associates/MacMillan, 1990).

3. For a detailed analysis of the reasons for the closing and the corporate politics that influenced this decision, see:

C. Berggren and R. Rehder, “Uddevalla and Saturn: The Quest for Competitive and Humanistic Organization,” The International Executive, forthcoming.

4. Womack et al. (1990).

5. K. Williams, C. Haslam, J. Williams, and T. Cutler, “Against Lean Production,” Economy and Society 21 (1992): 321–354.

6. As reported by B. Karlsson at a doctoral seminar at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden, 7 February 1991.

7. Williams et al. (1992).

8. I gathered the facts and figures presented in this article as part of a comprehensive evaluation of Volvo’s small-scale plants, conducted from December 1992 to May 1993. See:

C. Berggren, “Excellence or Nightmare? An Evaluation of Volvo’s Small-Scale Plants” (Stockhom, Sweden: Royal Institute of Technology, mimeo, 1993).

9. The monthly J.D. Power figures are not statistically significant because of the low number of cars surveyed. The trend is consistent with internal Volvo audits, however.

10. At all stations except the top (in which 100 percent of the time is used), there are micropauses of unused time. Balancing losses tend to increase with shorter work cycles because it becomes ever harder to achieve an even division of tasks. One specific type of balancing loss, variant losses, increases with growing product variation. See:

R. Wild, “On the Selection of Mass Production Systems,” International Journal of Production Research 5 (1975); and

C. Berggren, Alternatives to Lean Production: Work Organization in the Swedish Auto Industry (Ithaca, New York: ILR Press, 1992).

11. M. Nomura, “Farewell to ‘Toyotism’? Recent Trend of a Japanese Automobile Company” (Okayama, Japan: Okayama University, Department of Economics, mimeo, 1992).

12. A comparison with two much less successful unionized Japanese transplants, Mazda/AutoAlliance in Flat Rock, Michigan, and GM/Suzuki in Ingersoll, Ontario, is enough to highlight this point. Both plants subscribe to the same concepts of production control and work design as NUMMI, but the outcome is very different. When I visited AutoAlliance in May 1993, a human resource manager told me that they had “a very unhappy workforce,” and that he expected and hoped that Ford would take charge and get the plant on track again. See:

L. Babson, “Lean or Mean: The MIT Model and Lean Production at Mazda,” Labor Studies Journal 18 (1993): 3–24.

13. According to M. Nomura, “Ohno [Toyota vice president] named this [Toyota’s] improvement system an ‘embarassing system,’ which means the system continuously embarrasses production managers and supervisors.” See:

Nomura (1992), p. 17.

14. The principles are discussed in detail in:

K. Ellegård, T. Engström, and L. Nilsson, Reforming Industrial Work — Principles and Realities in the Planning of Volvo’s Car Assembly Plant in Uddevalla (Stockholm, Sweden: The Swedish Work Environment Fund, 1993).

15. Interview with deputy head of the production engineering department, Mitsubishi plant, Mizushima, Japan, 18 October 1993.

16. See M. Nomura, “Skills and Division of Labor: Japanese Companies and Taylorism” (Tokyo, Japan: Ochanomizu Shobo, 1993); and

M. Nomura, “Toyotism: Maturity and Metamorphosis of a Japanese Automobile Company” (Kyoto, Japan: Minerva Shobo, 1993).

17. C. Walker and R. Guest, The Man on the Assembly Line (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1952).

18. H. Shimada, “Japan’s Changing Labor Market,” Journal of Japanese Trade & Industry 4 (1991): 8–11.

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