Incentives, Productivity and NUMMI

I recently listened to a great show from This American Life. They covered the story of New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI). General Motors and Toyota opened NUMMI in 1984 as a joint venture so Toyota could start building cars in the US. Toyota showed GM the secrets of its production system and how Toyota made cars of much higher quality and much lower cost than GM.

There are some great lessons in the story for compliance professionals. In part because the story can be seen through the lens of incentives and corporate culture. Two topics that are important to compliance.

For GM plant managers, their pay was based on productivity. They needed to get lots of cars out the door at the end of the assembly line. It didn’t matter whether the car could drive off the line or had to be towed. Workers told the story of cars coming off the line with a Monte Carlo having the front end of a Regal. They would just let them run down the line and out into the yard. Then they were fixed out there (with overtime). The emphasis was on quantity. At GM, the production line could never stop.

The Toyota system empowered the line workers to stop the line if there was a problem they couldn’t fix. The emphasis was to fix the problem at its source and not defer it for later. The emphasis was on quality. (Some of the recent problems at Toyota can be blamed on changing their focus to quantity. They wanted to be the biggest car company in the world.)

In spreading the Toyota system, there was resistance from both the company and the union. The union was opposed because the system was more efficient and would reduce the workers at a plant by 25%. The NUMMI plant was the re-opening of a shut down GM plant. The union was out of work and was more open to change. It was either change the way you work or don’t work at all.

GM had trouble empowering its worker and changing the corporate culture that comes along with the Toyota production line. They thought workers would just stop the line to play cards and get coffee.

Its worth an hour of your time to listen to the story.


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