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Maybe It's Not Your Staff, Maybe It's Your System

After listening to episode 561 on This American Life, “NUMMI,” and reading Cultural Transformation at NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated), I must reference my recent post, You Have To Respect Your “Boots In Your Building”.

These stories explain why NUMMI, one of the least productive GM plants at the time, closed its doors in 1984, and how it was later revitalized, using the same workers who management initially thought were the cause of the failures.

It was the system that failed, not the people.

The revitalized NUMMI focused on quality, not quantity. It emphasized teamwork and the importance of field feedback. It showed how appreciation, along with proper training, can give you a better product.

If you apply these same principles in buildings and operating plants, you will have already created the best preventative maintenance plan that can be implemented.

I encourage everyone to listen to the podcast in its entirety to get the whole story of what happened at NUMMI:

This American Life - Originally aired 7.17.2015 - 561: NUMMI 2015

A car plant in Fremont California that might have saved the U.S. car industry. In 1984, General Motors and Toyota opened NUMMI as a joint venture. Toyota showed GM the secrets of its production system: How it made cars of much higher quality and much lower cost than GM achieved. Frank Langfitt explains why GM didn't learn the lessons—until it was too late. © 1995-2015 Ira Glass

What fascinated me the most was that NUMMI took the same workers from one of the worst auto plants in America and produced some of its best cars. This is due to the lessons learned from Toyota.

Before they learned those lessons, NUMMI was a bad place:

“It was considered the worst workforce in the automobile industry in the United States. And it was a reputation that was well-earned,” Bruce Lee, union head at the time, told This American Life.

I’ll let you listen for yourself, but there were some horror stories about employees deliberately sabotaging cars, constant drunkenness on the job, and much more. All of this led to horrible-quality vehicles and eventually the closure of the plant.

After learning Toyota’s manufacturing process, the plant reopened, and with the same staff as before, NUMMI became one of the best plants in the country. Its cars had some of the lowest defect figures in America, higher quality, and much lower costs.

Bruce Lee explained why the same crew was able to have such a dramatic turnaround: “I believed it was the system that made it bad, not the people.

Good systems are key to letting people do their best work. Training, Feedback, Communication & Teamwork. Those are the things that make a system work.

When something isn’t going right, before you rush to judge your people, step back and take a look at your system first. Is there proper training material? Has a system been put in place to verify that each employee has confirmed acknowledgement? Never assume, "They should know that!" What's obvious to you may not be obvious to others. Try to refocus and get your team on board. You might just be shocked at the results.

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