RIP NUMMI & Elevator Pitches

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NUMMI, deconstructed
Catching up on podcasts of “This American Life,” the weekly public radio program, I finally listened to an episode from last March about the NUMMI car plant in Fremont, California. It’s a fascinating piece of reporting by NPR automotive correspondent Frank Langfitt, who spoke to plant workers and managers at every level of the project.

New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. was developed jointly by General Motors and Toyota in 1984. The NUMMI vision was that Toyota would share with GM the production secrets that resulted in higher quality cars at lower costs, and GM would teach Toyota how to operate from a US base, which would help the company reduce import fees.

“This American Life” devotes the entire hour of the episode to detailing the transformation of a plant that had had one of the worst reputations in country, and the subsequent dismantling of the program 16 years later. The plant closed earlier this year.

NUMMI worked, but its lessons proved nearly impossible to transfer. Teamwork and trust couldn’t be rolled out to other GM plants. Workers and managers at other GM plants were resistant to changes that would do away with seniority and executive parking spots.

Jeffrey Liker, author of “The Toyota Way,” (McGraw-Hill, 2003), says that GM couldn’t figure out how to absorb company-wide the positive cultural lessons it was learning in Freemont.

“I remember one of the GM managers was ordered from a very senior level, a vice-president, to make a GM plant look like NUMMI,” says Liker in the radio story. “He said, ‘I want you to go there with cameras, and take a picture of every square inch, and whatever you take a picture of, I want it to look like that in our plant. There should be no excuse for why we’re different than NUMMI, why our quality is lower, why our productivity isn’t as high, because you’re going to copy everything you see.’ Immediately this guy knew that was crazy. We can’t copy and play motivation, we can’t copy good relationships between the union and management. That’s not something you can copy. You can’t take a photograph of it.

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Comments (3)
SF
fsf  Tools, Technologies, equipment can be bought and replicated. However cultural tranformation or transplantation would be a challenge unless it comes from the talk and news ways are evangalized.
Ranga
Tools, Technologies, equipment can be bought and replicated. However cultural tranformation or transplantation would be a challenge unless it comes from the talk and news ways are evangalized.
Miguel A. Ariño
Very interesting post. As a matter of fact I teach in my clases at IESE a GM  case, where we talk about the dificulties to transfer the learnings from Toyota NUMMI.
Good post
Miguel